Noting low local immunization rate, Grand County officials work to increase vaccinations amid measles outbreaks
Bill aims to make vaccine exemptions more difficult to get
As measles outbreaks plague communities across the United States, Colorado officials are making efforts to improve immunization rates in the state and in the county.
Colorado’s average immunization rate for the entire recommended immunization schedule for children is 72.3 percent, but Grand County falls far short of the state rates with an average immunization rate of less than 50 percent.
A bill in the state legislature aims to raise immunization rates by adding more required vaccines for students at public schools and making it harder for parents to get vaccine exemptions for their children.
Currently, Colorado schools require students to receive several vaccines, including the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine, but allow parents to exempt for medical, personal and religious reasons by simply filing an exemption with the school or child care center.
According to Brene Belew-La Due, director of Grand County Public Health, the bill, HB19-1312, isn’t about taking away parents’ choice, but about making the choice to not vaccinate a more proactive decision.
The bill would require parents to fill out forms to be exempted for medical or nonmedical reasons, adopts the more stringent federal medical exemption standards and requires hepatitis A, meningococcal and rotavirus vaccines.
“It is more about promoting individual accountability and personal responsibility,” Belew-LaDue said. “There are parents that think, I take my kid (to the doctor) to get vaccinated, so why can that person just sign off when they go to school and get exempted. Why do they not have to take that extra step and get educated?”
However, Grand County schools have better average rates of immunization than the county as a whole. East Grand schools all report immunization rates in the low to mid-nineties for each of the required vaccinations, which include MMR, Varicella or chickenpox, polio, hepatitis B and diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis (DTap).
West Grand schools report immunization rates of over 94 percent for each of the required vaccinations.
Belew-LaDue said it can be difficult to understand the whole picture when it comes to immunization rates in the county because of difficulties keeping track of every individual’s immunization record.
For example, people who move around a lot or receive vaccinations outside the county can have incomplete records and the state’s immunization records system only includes people who have received two or more valid vaccinations.
Regardless, according to the best existing data, neither the county, the state nor the country is meeting the target immunization rate of 80 percent identified in the Healthy People 2020 survey conducted by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Many factors contribute to the less than optimum immunization rates, including the continuing spread of misinformation about vaccines and the ability of people to pick and choose which vaccines to get instead of following recommended guidelines.
“I know we have a percentage of parents that have a vaccine hesitancy,” Belew-LaDue said. “There is that kind of picking and choosing sometimes.”
It’s important to keep immunization rates at a certain level to maintain herd immunity, Belew-LaDue explained. While the rates differ depending on the vaccine, generally a 95 percent immunization rate is needed to uphold herd immunity.
Grand County Public Health receives funding from the state to educate locals about the importance of vaccinations and some money to provide free vaccines to those who qualify, including those without insurance.
“We’re more focused on looking at the population and getting the word out about immunizations and getting the information out about them,” Belew-LaDue said. “We get information out to providers, that what it talks about is immunizing kids when you have them in the office and not missing opportunities to immunize your kids.”
The county is also preparing a strategy for the possibility of measles appearing in the county. So far only one case of measles has been diagnosed in the state this year, but measles is one of the most contagious preventable diseases.
Measles is airborne and spread by coughing and sneezing, so the airspace where someone with measles has coughed or sneezed can be contagious for up to two hours after the sick person is gone.
“Vaccinating helps protect those that are vulnerable and can’t be vaccinated, especially when we’re having measles outbreaks around the country,” she said.
State senators have until Friday to pass the bill before the end of this legislative season.
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