OLYMPIA — Local health officers across Washington are urging the state to hold off on a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for school-aged kids.
In a letter to state Board of Health officials this week, health officers said child-sized doses should get full federal approval before they’re required in public schools.
The state Association of Local Public Health Officials referenced the “rigorous process” the state Board of Health goes through in mandating shots for public schools. An Immunization Advisory Committee evaluates nine criteria, from vaccine effectiveness to “burden of compliance” for parents.
“Although not specified in the existing criteria, we believe that full Food and Drug Administration approval of a vaccine product should be a prerequisite for consideration of a requirement for child-care of school entry,” the letter reads.
Dr. Chris Spitters, Snohomish County’s health officer, agrees.
“Our sense as a group is that we haven’t checked off enough of the boxes to consider that,” he said this week.
The question of a vaccine mandate for students has been swirling as the state prepares for doses to roll in as early as next week for kids ages 5 to 11.
On Friday, the FDA approved Pfizer’s vaccine for emergency use in that age group, forwarding the decision to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for final emergency approval.
Gov. Jay Inslee has issued vaccine requirements for health care workers, school employees and other adults.
Washington’s public schools currently require students to get a host of vaccines guarding against things like chickenpox, whooping cough, diphtheria and hepatitis B. After a measles outbreak in 2019, Washington no longer allows philosophical or personal exemptions for the combo measles, mumps and rubella vaccine.
While Spitters said a mandate should wait, he highlighted Snohomish County’s recent increase in youth infections. Vaccine eligibility for 5- to 11-year-old kids could have helped tamp down that surge, which was larger than he expected.
Inslee and state Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal have touted the success of existing state vaccine mandates but agree it’s not the time for a school requirement. There are “no plans at this time” to require the vaccine for K-12 students, according to a spokesperson for the governor’s office.
Reykdal agreed full FDA approval of the kid-friendly vaccines should come first. Mandating the vaccine for taxpayer-funded K-12 staffers is different from mandating vaccines for kids, he said.
Hesitancy among parents could also make a mandate for kids difficult to implement.
Vaccine rates are lower among younger people. And recent polling shows less than a third of parents are eager to get their young kids inoculated against the virus.
The state has good vaccination rates for other shots required in public school, Reykdal said, but COVID vaccines “got so politicized nationally that initially these numbers might be low.”
Conversations about a potential mandate will likely resume next school year, he added.
Pediatricians are already prepping to give out doses and talk with hesitant parents.
“Our job as pediatricians is to answer questions, to help parents, to be a reliable source of information for parents,” said Dr. Jennifer Wild, a pediatrician at Providence’s Mill Creek clinic. “If there are questions, hesitations, then please come see us.”
Everett Public Schools Superintendent Ian Saltzman said the district will support vaccine directives from the governor.
“I hope students can get vaccinated and that there will be various options for parents to seek the vaccination for their students,” Saltzman said. “Clinics at schools, doctors office(s), pharmacies — any means possible to support family schedules and needs.”
Herald reporter Jerry Cornfield contributed to this article.