ELLSWORTH — Hancock County has among the highest vaccination opt-out rates of all counties in Maine, according to data released this month by the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Nearly 10 percent of kindergartners were exempt from vaccination in Hancock County during the 2018-2019 school year compared to 6.2 percent statewide.
Graduating seniors had an exemption rate of roughly 12 percent across the county. At all grade levels, the vast majority of the exemptions were granted for philosophical reasons, rather than religious or medical.
But those numbers would likely change if a bill to eliminate nonmedical exemptions is signed into law.
The Education and Cultural Affairs Committee voted on April 10 to send the bill to the Legislature for a full vote. A public hearing on the legislation attracted hundreds to the state Capitol last month.
If the measure passes, children would be required to get certain vaccinations before attending school, unless they have a medical reason that prevents them from being vaccinated, such as leukemia.
Parents who opt out of vaccinations for their children for philosophical or religious reasons would be given the option of homeschooling or having their children take online courses.
Children with non-medical opt-outs who are covered under an individualized education plan and already attending school would be able to keep going to school unvaccinated. Their parents, however, would be required to provide a statement from a medical professional that they have been made “aware of the risks and benefits associated with the choice to immunize,” according to the bill.
A number of Hancock County residents testified at the March hearing. Most were opposed to the bill, with many citing a desire for autonomy in parental decision-making and calling for further research into the efficacy of vaccines, despite the conclusion of most medical experts that, on the whole, vaccines are safe and effective.
Dr. Meryl Nass of Ellsworth, who opposes the legislation, told the committee that “There is no crisis of infectious diseases caused by lack of vaccinations.”
“The media have misled you,” Nass said.
“Immunocompromised children are not catching diseases from their unvaccinated classmates, and they are not dying. Look at the numbers.”
She continued, “Most cases of vaccine-preventable diseases in Maine are the result of vaccine failures, not the result of unvaccinated children.”
But Dr. Sydney Sewall, representing the Maine chapter of the American Academy of Pediatricians, said the “safety and efficacy of vaccines is not the issue,” and likened legislating vaccines to requiring car seats and seat belts.
“Vaccine use is supported by peer-reviewed and reproducible science while the anti-vax position is fueled by myths and conspiracy theories,” Sewall said. “I agree that parents have a constitutional right to refuse vaccines. They don’t, however, have a right to put other parents’ children at risk.”
The bill is being debated as several regions around the country, including New York City, have declared public health emergencies in efforts to contain outbreaks of infectious diseases such as measles.
Maine’s non-medical opt-out rate reached an all-time high this year, according to the recent CDC numbers, climbing to 5.6 percent, which is nearly triple the national average for kindergartners in 2016-2017. Medical exemptions doubled, from 0.3 to 0.6 percent.
High school seniors in Hancock County had some of the highest exemption rates, according to the CDC.
At George Stevens Academy, where an outbreak of whooping cough sickened nearly a dozen students this fall, roughly 31.2 percent of the school’s 77 12th-graders had been granted exemptions, most for philosophical reasons.
At Deer-Isle Stonington High School, 42.9 percent of the school’s 21 seniors had been granted exemptions, all of which were for philosophical reasons.
Among elementary schools with more than 15 students, Mount Desert Elementary had the highest exemption rates in Hancock County for students entering kindergarten, with 22.2 percent of students heading into the school year unvaccinated. At Mount Desert Island High School, however, only 5.6 percent of 12th-graders were unvaccinated.