Aug 28, 2023 - News

Georgia sees rise in kindergarten vaccine exemptions

Data: CDa C; Map: Kavya Beheraj/Axios
Data: CDa C; Map: Kavya Beheraj/Axios

New estimates from the CDC show 4.7% of kindergartners across Georgia were granted exemptions from required vaccines as of the school year ending in 2022 — the highest percentage in the Southeast.

Why it matters: Vaccinations reduce the spread of childhood illnesses — some potentially fatal — that once plagued the country, such as polio.

  • While children are generally required to get a number of vaccinations before attending public school, exemptions can be given for both medical and non-medical reasons (such as religious or moral objections), depending on local rules.

Threat level: Studies have found an increased risk of infection from vaccine-preventable diseases among exempt children.

  • In 2019, a measles outbreak was reported at Mabry Middle School in Cobb County, according to the AJC.
  • Georgia's exemption rate increased from 1.3% in 2012.

What's happening: A COVID-19 vaccination is not required for young children attending public school anywhere in the U.S., Still, it appears that concerns over that shot may be fueling broader vaccine skepticism among a relatively small but growing number of parents — though that trend certainly existed before the pandemic.

By the numbers: The nationwide median kindergarten vaccine exemption rate was rising even before the pandemic, increasing from 1.4% in 2012 to 2.6% in 2019.

  • It has stayed at 2.5% or higher since 2020, coming in at 2.7% in 2022, the latest year for which data is available.

Zoom out: Across the country, Idaho (9.8%), Utah (7.4%) and Oregon (7%) had the highest median kindergarten vaccination exemption rates.

  • Mississippi, New York and West Virginia were tied for the lowest, at 0.1%.

Of note: In Georgia, if a parent objects to a vaccination based on religious beliefs, they have to fill out an affidavit and provide that form to the school or child care facility where the student will be attending.

Between the lines: Even as the kindergarten vaccine exemption rate ticks up, Americans as a whole are overwhelmingly supportive of childhood vaccinations, according to a recent Pew survey.

  • When it comes to the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) shot, 88% of Americans said the benefits outweigh the risks, compared to 10% who feel the opposite.
  • "The share expressing confidence in the value of MMR vaccines is identical to the share who said this in 2019, before the coronavirus outbreak," the survey reports.

Yes, but: Just 70% of Americans now say healthy kids should be vaccinated as a requirement to attend public school, down from 82% in the pre-pandemic era, Pew found.

  • There's a significant partisan split here, with 85% of Democrats agreeing with such a requirement compared to 57% of Republicans.
  • While Democratic support for vaccine requirements held steady at around 85% between pre- and post-pandemic years, Republican support took a remarkable nosedive, falling from 79% in 2019 to 57% in 2023.
  • Put another way, the overall decline in support for vaccination requirements is being driven almost entirely by Republicans.

The bottom line: We'd like to see further research before definitively saying that skepticism around the COVID-19 shots is leading to higher childhood vaccination exemption rates — but it sure seems that way.

  • As Pew put it: "Those who are not vaccinated for COVID-19 are among those most likely to express concern about childhood vaccines generally."

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