Immunization Rates Vary Widely Across Flathead County Schools

According to new school-specific data released by the health department, more than 1,100 students in Flathead County have a religious exemption from getting vaccinated

By Justin Franz
The Flathead City-County Health Department. Beacon File Photo

New data from the Flathead City-County Health Department shows the vaccination rates for preventable diseases vary widely from school to school, with private Christian schools reporting among the lowest rates.

Last month, county health officials announced that immunization rates in Flathead County schools were on the decline, which is putting the community at risk for outbreak of disease.

According to the health department, the vaccination rate for measles, mumps and rubella in local schools in 2018-2019 was 92.6 percent, down from 93.7 percent in 2017-2018 and 93.9 percent in 2016-2017. Officials say that a vaccination rate of at least 95 percent is needed to prevent the spread of disease and protect children and community members.

The rate is even lower among Flathead County’s kindergarteners. For the 2018-2019 school year, only 87.7 percent of kindergarten students were effectively vaccinated, down from 91.3 percent the previous year.

At the request of the Flathead Beacon, the health department published school-specific vaccination information. The data was made available to the public online on Sept. 23.

Columbia Falls High School has one of the highest immunization rates in the county. As of December 2018, 97 percent of students were vaccinated for polio; 95.6 percent for varicella; 96.8 percent for measles, mumps and rubella; and 96.4 percent for diphtheria, tetanus and whooping cough (identified as the DTaP vaccination). Of the 661 students enrolled at the high school, 42 have been given religious exemptions, or 6.4 percent of the student population.

Montana law allows parents a religious exemption from getting their child vaccinated. The parent must fill out a form from the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services, have it notarized and then submit it to the school. The religious exemption is only good for one year. Parents must re-apply each year.

Whitefish High School has a slightly lower vaccination rate than Columbia Falls with 93.6 percent of students vaccinated for polio; 91.4 percent for varicella; 93.4 percent for measles, mumps and rubella; and 93.8 percent for diphtheria, tetanus and whooping cough. Of the school’s 534 students, nearly 10 percent of students have a religious exemption. Bigfork High School has a similar exemption rate of 9.7 percent.

Vaccination rates at Kalispell’s two high schools are in the mid 90s. Of the 1,406 students at Flathead High, 82 have been given religious exemptions. Of the 1,261 students at Glacier High, 65 have been given exemptions.

Non-rural public elementary and junior high schools in the county’s main towns typically had average vaccination rates in the low to mid or upper 90s, with Bigfork Elementary reporting the lowest at an average slightly below 90 percent. Hedges and Elrod in Kalispell and Muldown in Whitefish were also on the lower end, averaging about 90. Edgerton had the highest among elementary schools at above 95 across board, while Evergreen Junior High had the highest among middle schools at between 97 and 98 for all immunizations.

A number of private and rural schools — including Cayuse Prairie, Deer Park, Kila, Stillwater Christian, Trinity Lutheran, and Whitefish Christian Academy — have some of the lowest vaccination rates in the county. At Trinity Lutheran School in Kalispell, 22 percent of the student population, or 39 of the 177 enrolled students, have a religious exemption. As of December 2018, 83.1 percent of students at the school were vaccinated for polio; 76.3 percent were vaccinated for varicella; 79.7 percent were vaccinated for measles, mumps and rubella; and 82.5 percent were vaccinated for diphtheria, tetanus and whooping cough.

The vaccination rates at Stillwater Christian School were slightly lower at, respectively, 79.4 percent, 74.8 percent, 78 percent and 78.8 percent. Whitefish Christian Academy averaged in the mid 80s.

Health officials have said their goal is to get the countywide measles, mumps and rubella vaccination rate above 95 percent during the 2019-2020 school year.

Measles is highly contagious. If a measles case occurs within a school, children who are not vaccinated, including those with religious exemptions, are not allowed to attend school until the outbreak is over, which would be a minimum of three weeks. Those students would not be allowed to go to daycare and would be strongly discouraged from leaving their home.

Outbreaks of preventable diseases have made headlines in recent years, including in the Pacific Northwest. Earlier this year, in April, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced there were more than 690 cases of measles in 22 states. It was the greatest number of cases reported in the United States since the disease was eliminated in 2000. Most of the outbreak was centered in Washington and New York. Earlier this year, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed a law barring any un-vaccinated student from going to school.

Lisa Dennison, infections disease prevention and control supervisor for Flathead County, said officials want to make the school-specific information publicly available in the hopes of encouraging parents to get their children vaccinated.

“If we see an immunization rate below 95 percent at a school, we’re really concerned that an outbreak at that school would impact a lot of children,” she said. “By releasing this school-specific information, we hope it will lead to more awareness and engagement in the community and thus lead to an increase in immunization rates.”

The school-specific data can be found on the Flathead City-County Health Department website, FlatheadHealth.org, under data and reports.