Aug 23, 2022 - News

School vaccine waivers are skyrocketing in Utah

Illustration of an old-school Mac with a flashing "no vaccination" sign

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

The number of parents seeking waivers from the state's kindergarten immunization requirements exploded last year.

  • The spike came on the heels of anti-vax fervor around COVID-19.

Driving the news: School vaccine waivers more than doubled in some parts of the state from 2020 to 2021, according to preliminary immunization data obtained by Axios Salt Lake City.

By the numbers: Barely a quarter of Utah's elementary schools had at least 95% of their kindergarteners fully vaccinated last fall — the rate needed for herd immunity against measles.

  • The share of Utah schools where more than 5% of kindergarteners were exempt rose by nearly 40%.
  • Most of those schools are in politically conservative parts of the state.

Why it matters: Children who can't be vaccinated due to allergies or other medical problems rely on their peers to protect them from serious illnesses like measles, whooping cough and polio.

  • The sharp increases in vaccine waivers undo gains in vaccine coverage made in recent years, as health experts debunked false claims of risks linked to standard childhood immunizations.

What's happening: Parents fell behind on their kids' immunizations as they skipped doctor visits during the pandemic, said Rich Lakin, director of immunizations for the state health department.

  • Caught without the required shots when school began last year, a lot of families sought waivers rather than making last-minute doctor's appointments, Lakin said.

Yes, and: Those delays coincided with a storm of anti-vaccine rhetoric against COVID shots.

  • That rhetoric may have soured some people against vaccines in general, Lakin acknowledged.
  • "We're expecting that … there'll probably be more that claim an exemption just because they're getting misinformation," Lakin said.

What's next: Health officials are waiting for this year's exemption numbers to see whether last year's rise is due to pandemic delays in doctor visits or cultural resistance to vaccines.

What they're saying: The reappearance of polio this month in New York and previous Utah outbreaks of measles and mumps make Utah's falling immunization rates "scary," Lakin said.

  • If we start to see polio outbreaks across the country, then just plain and simple — if you're not vaccinated for polio, you better get [the vaccine]."

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