The measles crisis continues to grow in Washington state and around the country.
As a battle continues in the state Legislature over whether students should be allowed to skip vaccines for personal reasons, KIRO 7 learned there are some schools in our state – including in Snohomish County – with hundreds of unvaccinated students.
Where are the spots most at risk for a measles outbreak? Reporter Deedee Sun dug into data from the Washington State Department of Health on school vaccination opt-out risks to find out – plus what's being done to address the hot spots.
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About one in every four students at Monroe’s Sky Valley Education Center are not vaccinated against measles, about 212 students at the Snohomish County public school who opted out of the MMR vaccine in the 2017-18 school year.
And it's not alone.
“When we look across the state of Washington, we see little pockets of school districts or areas in certain counties where there's higher than expected rates of unimmunized folks. And that's where any of these diseases can take place,” said Dr. Scott Lindquist, the Washington State Department of Health’s epidemiologist for communicable diseases.
The measles outbreak in Clark County started after an infected international traveler went to a Portland basketball game -- then those infected people went to southern Washington.
“This outbreak, while it was in this unimmunized community, quickly spread to the public through places like Costco, Ikea, a basketball game, schools,” Lindquist said.
So far 72 people have gotten sick and most of them are unimmunized kids in Clark County.
As you might expect, several schools in the Battle Ground School District in Clark County have high rates of vaccine opt outs.
River HomeLink has nearly a quarter of its kids exempt from the MMR vaccine, or 239 students.
But data from the DOH shows there are many areas in western Washington that a high percentage of unvaccinated students – and all are hot spots for measles.
“It can be any place where kids that are unimmunized congregate. So it can be a church, sports groups, schools,” Lindquist said.
It means if that measles-carrying traveler had come into contact with any of those communities -- the outbreak would've happened here. So which are most at risk?
KIRO 7 through the DOH data for the last school year of about 2,500 schools, focusing on public schools with more than 200 kids.
Topping the charts is Skagit Academy in the Mount Vernon school district.
About 40 percent (or 138) students did not get the MMR vaccine there, making it the public school with the highest percentage of unvaccinated kids in Washington State (among schools with more than 200 students).
“It does present a real concern to us. Particularly when we have opt out rates as high as they are at the academy,” said Dr. Carl Bruner, superintendent of the Mount Vernon School District.
“Our top priority with all of our programs and schools is student health and student safety. And to the extent that students are not adequately immunized present risks both for themselves and their peers when it comes to health and safety – and also to staff to be frank,” Bruner said.
The Washington State Legislature is considering a bill that would ban personal or philosophical exemptions for the MMR vaccine, and possibly for all vaccines.
But Mount Vernon's superintendent says given current state law, their options for increasing vaccination rates at Skagit Academy are limited.
“I'm not sure what else we can do,” Bruner said. “I think that we're doing everything we can do. We are communicating at times a daily basis with not only specific families, but also just the general public about the importance that we believe immunization carries. We’re doing everything I think we know how to do, to convince people to take a second and third look at that,” Bruner said.
He said usually, the outreach works.
“Most of the times it's successful. At Skagit Academy it has not been successful for almost 40 percent of our students,” Bruner said.
Another hot spot is at Edmonds Heights K-12.
“We were identified as a school of risk for herd immunity,” said Mara Marano-Bianco, program manager for health services for the Edmonds School District.
The vaccine opt-out rate at Edmonds Heights is also 24 percent (or 135 students).
“The department of health specifically reached out to this school?” KIRO 7’s Deedee Sun asked the school’s principal, Scott Mauk.
“That was an interesting meeting,” Mauk said. “When the DOH came and sat down in my office with me, we were like well – let's make a plan. So we just did a pretty serious outreach plan,” he said.
Marano-Bianco said the outreach did help – a little.
“Did that really move the needle?” Marano-Bianco said. She hesitated, before saying, “It did. We are in compliance but we still do have a lot of exemption letters here at this school,” she said.
“Is it part of the school's' goal to continue lowering the number of people who opt out?” Sun asked the school’s principal.
“I think it's really more of a district thing. We'll do what the district and county need us to do,” Mauk said.
All three of the public schools – Skagit Academy, Sky Valley Education Center, and Edmonds Heights K-12 – are all alternative schools that combine homeschooling with classroom learning.
The school districts each couldn't point to why their respective alternative school had such high opt out rates. But parents who chose to skip at least some vaccinations for their kids said they believe the shots come with risks.
“There are so many pros and cons to both,” said Janet Randall, a Monroe parent.
“I've chosen to vaccinate somewhat. I think we all hold our breath, making sure everything will go well,” said Maria Hansen, parent at Skagit Academy.
Common side effects can be a sore arm, mild rash, or fever from the shot -- but any complications, are extremely rare.
The department of health says the bigger risk is the measles disease, and the vulnerability these schools bring to their communities.
“These (schools) represent potential areas where another outbreak could occur,” Lindquist said, looking over the list of schools with the highest vaccine opt out rates.
There is a silver lining – the Clark County measles outbreak that started in January has spurred thousands of families to get vaccinated since.
Data is sourced from the Department of Health's website
Public schools (200+ students) in Washington with high MMR vaccine opt-out rates (2017-18 data)
Private schools (200+ students) in Washington with high MMR vaccine opt-out rates (2017-18 data):
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