Oregon Vaccination Rates Up As Some Schools Ask Families To Disclose Children's Shots

Mask signs at school Richmond Elementary in Southeast Portland. Elizabeth Miller OPB.jpg

Results from a new study out Monday show “promising results” for the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine for children 5-11, according to NPR.

The vaccine is already available under an emergency use authorization for individuals 12-15, and fully approved by the Food and Drug Administration for anyone over 16.

Across Oregon, the vaccination rate for people 12-17 varies widely. In Multnomah County, the vaccination rate for 12- to 17-year-olds is at 74%. In Lake County, in Southern Oregon, it’s just 15.6%.

Statewide, the vaccination rate for 12- to 17-year-olds is 59.6%. “Vaccinated” in this case means people have received at least one dose of any COVID-19 vaccine.

Now that school is in session, some school districts have started asking families to share their students’ vaccination status if they are eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. The idea is that if school administrators know which students are vaccinated, they can more quickly conduct contact tracing and minimize learning disruptions. According to the Oregon Health Authority and the Oregon Department of Education, fully vaccinated people do not have to quarantine if they are not showing symptoms.

Multnomah County health officer Dr. Jennifer Vines said the more information schools have, the better they manage COVID-19 exposures as they happen.

“When the reality of an exposure happens, and older teenagers face missing athletics, missing class, and parents find themselves having to find a plan for their kids who need to quarantine... that becomes very real,” Vines said.

Multnomah County health officials plan to brief county commissioners on school trends and guidance Tuesday.

Portland Public Schools, Oregon’s largest school district, is asking families to complete a survey about students’ vaccination. Reynolds School District is asking the same of families after Reynolds High School announced a move to short-term distance learning for its whole student body.

In Beaverton, families are able to submit copies of COVID-19 vaccination cards for their students online, though the district reports only 11.5% of eligible students have done so. Washington County, where Beaverton is located, has one of the highest rates of COVID-19 vaccination for 12- to 17-year-olds, at 70%.

But not all school districts are asking families for that information. That includes the largest school district in Clackamas County, North Clackamas, as well as some of the largest districts in the least vaccinated counties.

The counties with the highest vaccination rates for ages 12-17 in Oregon lie on the western side of the state. They include Benton, Clackamas, Hood River, Multnomah and Washington counties.

The counties with the lowest vaccination rates for 12- to 17-year-olds are mostly in Eastern and Southern Oregon, including Baker, Gilliam, Grant, Harney and Lake counties.

Only one-third of Oregon’s counties have COVID-19 vaccination rates above 50% for 12- to 17-year-olds.

In Lake County, the least vaccinated in the state, Lake County SD 7 superintendent Michael Carter encourages anyone in his community to get vaccinated. He said the school district has collaborated with the Lake County Health Department and the local hospital to offer vaccination opportunities the last couple of weeks.

He compares getting vaccinated to going out in the cold — just like layers of clothing can keep you warm, layers of protection against COVID-19 can keep you safe.

“I want as much protection as possible,” he said.

At the same time, Carter said he respects the rights of parents to vaccinate — or not vaccinate their children.

Harney County School District #3 superintendent Steve Quick said his district will not require vaccine declarations from families unless mandated by the state. Like Carter in Lake County, Quick said the school district worked with the local public health authority to offer vaccination clinics earlier this year.

Quick said he’s noticed student-athletes are more vaccinated than others, a potential way to avoid quarantines in order to participate in sports.

However, throughout the state and in Harney County, there is still lack of trust in the safety of vaccines. One Harney County doctor told OPB he is against the vaccine for children.

In Portland, school board members are exploring a vaccine mandate for eligible students. Earlier this month, the Los Angeles Unified School District was the first major school district in the country to announce a vaccine mandate for students 12 and older.

Unlike other school-required vaccinations, like Hepatitis B or Tetanus vaccines, Vines said the COVID-19 vaccine is a “different calculus” given its emergency use authorization status.

“I think it’ll be interesting to watch jurisdictions who are ahead of us, it’ll be interesting to watch them work through some of those questions... like we always do learn from those who are a bit ahead of us in managing COVID-19,” Vines said.

Right behind Multnomah County among highly vaccinated areas is Benton County. In that southern Willamette Valley county, 73.9% of 12- to 17-year-olds have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.

“That’s something to celebrate,” said Benton County public health administrator April Holland.

Holland said canvassing targeted low-vaccination areas, partnering with school districts and local hospitals, sharing information in different languages, and incentives like food boxes and $100 grocery gift cards helped the county get there. She also cited FEMA-sponsored vaccine clinics.

In the county, she said student-aged children are still getting COVID-19, but they are not overrepresented in the number of cases. However, it’s still early in the school year.

“They take up about 6% of our population, and they’re about 6% of the cases in the last 30 days, so it’s a good thing that they aren’t overrepresented,” Holland said. “But I think that it’s a little too soon to say if that vaccination rate is sort of correlated with a lower case rate, with school just starting.”

When it comes to a vaccine mandate, Holland said conversations have started, but no decisions have been made. Like Vines, she says the lack of full FDA approval is still a question.

“That’s often where the conversation leads to, and I think many many school districts are going to move in that direction once we see full approval, and maybe more before then,” Holland said.

Until then, choosing to vaccinate teenagers remains up to individual families. Vines encourages parents to look into it if they haven’t already.

“It’s a family choice at this point, but it’s something else that’s going to achieve our two main goals right now, which are to keep hospitals functioning, and keep kids in school,” Vines said.

This story was originally published by Oregon Public Broadcasting.

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