Board of Health opts against new school vaccine requirement

SEATTLE — The Washington state Board of Health has decided that COVID-19 vaccines will not be required for students to attend K-12 schools this fall.

The Board of Health made the decision in a unanimous vote Wednesday, The Seattle Times reported.

Last fall, the board created 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 advisory group in late February voted to recommend against adding a COVID-19 vaccine to the list of school-required immunizations, citing a lack of vaccine data for school-aged kids and potentially unpredictable social impacts from imposing a mandate.

“The Department of Health very much supports the safety and effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccinations,” state Secretary of Health Dr. Umair A. Shah, a board member, said before the vote Wednesday. " … I also want to affirm the overall recommendation of the (advisory group), but that does not take away from the fact that our department continues to remain committed to its work to encourage the public to get vaccinated against COVID-19.”

Dr. Tao Kwan-Gett, the state’s science officer and co-chair of the advisory group, noted that it may become necessary to assess whether the recommendation must change.

If new data on how the vaccine affects school-aged children surfaces, or if a new variant emerges that appears to show more severe disease in children, for example, the board could revisit the issue in the future, he said.

Board member Bob Lutz, former health officer of Spokane County’s public health department, said they also “have to be sensitive to the fact that this is a very contentious issue.”

He cited superintendents’ concerns about chronic absenteeism and parents/caregivers pulling their children from school during the pandemic, wondering if a COVID-19 vaccine requirement might worsen the problem.

Board and advisory group members agreed more data is needed about vaccines for kids ages 5 to 11. The Pfizer-BioNtech COVID vaccine has been granted emergency authorization by the Food and Drug Administration for ages 5 to 15, but it has not yet been fully approved for that age range.

In the United States, only two states — California and Louisiana — have added COVID vaccines to the list of required immunizations for school-aged kids, according to Pew Charitable Trusts. The requirements would be enforced only if the FDA grants full authorization to the kid-sized vaccine dose.