A state advisory group has decided against recommending a COVID-19 vaccine requirement for students in K-12 schools, leaving one more step before a final decision is made on the matter next month.
The question of whether Washington students should be required to get a COVID vaccine has divided many school communities over the past year, with some citing a desire to make schools safer and others concerned about a lack of reliable vaccine data for younger kids.
The state Board of Health began the process of tackling the issue last fall, creating a separate technical advisory group tasked with researching whether a COVID vaccine would meet all the scientific criteria needed to be added to the list of required K-12 immunizations. The volunteer group was made up of doctors, public health officers, state and local education leaders, and community organizers.
The group has met several times since then and late last month finally came to a vote.
Members were split, with six in favor of a COVID vaccine requirement in schools, seven against and four unsure — meaning the group will recommend against adding the COVID vaccine to the state’s administrative code when it presents its findings to the board next month.
“We need to keep our eye on the long term of what we’re trying to accomplish, and I think that’s community health overall,” Greg Lynch, a member of the advisory group and superintendent of the Olympic Educational Service District 114, said during the Feb. 24 meeting. “… We can’t afford right now to create a movement where the call is ‘Go fast now,’ without having a complete picture (of long-term data), which I worry about.”
Others also expressed concerns about a lack of vaccine data for school-aged kids and potentially unpredictable social impacts that a mandate could cause.
“As a clinician, I’m used to uncertainty,” said Dr. Ben Wilfond, another group member and a pulmonologist at Seattle Children’s. “I actually think the data with regards to COVID is more than sufficient for me to recommend this for anybody enthusiastically.
“But for those who are not ready to be there themselves and the implications of having this as a school requirement, all the things that come with that far outweigh the value of incremental change in (community) vaccination that might happen … if we had this requirement.”
Members who supported a COVID vaccine requirement believed the group had an opportunity to help eradicate the virus and further protect school-aged kids.
“Are we going to put a stop to COVID?” Bill Kallappa, a member of the state Board of Education, said during the recent meeting. “Or are we going to allow it to trickle on and continue to cripple us in ways that we don’t know? We talked about unintended consequences, and that’s a valid point people bring up. But what are the unintended consequences if we do not respond?”
Some of the board’s recent vaccine discussions have been the subject of rampant misinformation spread online by anti-vaccine and -mandate activists and Republican congressional candidates.
In January, protesters gathered at the state Department of Health headquarters in Olympia, with many agitated by false claims that the board was set to adopt a rule allowing police to lock up COVID vaccine refusers in internment camps.
Board members and staff were deluged with messages — including some threats, according to a spokesperson. As a result, the board removed staff contact information from its website and flagged some messages for possible referral to law enforcement.
“The misinformation and disinformation is not doing anyone any favors,” Board of Health chair Keith Grellner said in a recent interview. He said the board has spent a good deal of time and resources trying to get accurate information to the public.
That furor has died down more recently, Grellner said, stressing that the board values public comments on policies it is actually weighing — like the possible school vaccination requirements.
“When they are constructive concerns it helps us do our jobs better,” he said.
During the technical group’s research period on school vaccinations, members analyzed nine criteria that address vaccine effectiveness, disease burden and implementation, meaning the group investigated COVID shots’ efficacy and affordability, the morbidity of the disease, and the reality of delivering and tracking shots.
According to the state’s administrative code that requires immunizations for entry to schools or day cares, students are required to be vaccinated against, or show proof of acquired immunity for, chickenpox, measles, mumps, rubella, polio, tetanus, whooping cough, hepatitis B and a few other diseases.
Students with medical, religious, philosophical or personal exemptions are excluded from the requirement.
“This is more difficult than just adding up the scores for the nine criteria,” state science officer Dr. Tao Kwan-Gett, who co-chaired the advisory group, told members before the vote. “… It’s more than an arithmetic problem, so I think the discussion here is very important.”
The board is expected to make a decision on next steps at its regularly scheduled meeting April 13, Grellner said. If the board votes to agree with the advisory group’s recommendation, the matter will wrap up for the time being.
If the board votes to overrule the advisory group’s recommendation, a “public process” will begin to amend the state’s administrative code to add the COVID vaccine to the list of required shots. The board has not acted against its advisory group’s recommendation in at least the past decade, Grellner noted.
“I think it’s really important for us to follow through on the (technical advisory group’s) hard work,” he said. “They went to great lengths to go through this information and give us a recommendation pretty quickly, so I think we owe it to them and to the public to make a decision as soon as we can so that this issue is, at least for the moment, wrapped up one way or the other.”
Some education advocates, including the Seattle School Board, have come out in favor of a mandate for school COVID vaccinations, while Gov. Jay Inslee has expressed doubts, saying recently he worries such a move would prompt many parents to pull their children out of schools.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration last summer approved Pfizer’s COVID vaccine for people 16 and older, making it the first of three COVID shots available in the U.S. to be upgraded from an emergency use authorization, or EUA, to full approval.
For children aged 12 to 15, the vaccine can still be administered under an EUA, as can third doses for certain immunocompromised individuals. The Johnson & Johnson and Moderna COVID vaccines still await FDA approval but remain available for adults under an EUA.
Last month, new data showed Pfizer’s pediatric COVID vaccine — for those ages 5 to 11 — was much less effective in preventing infection in younger kids than in older teenagers or adults, though it’s still shown to prevent severe illness. The Pfizer vaccine is the only COVID shot authorized for that age group in the U.S.