Student vaccination estimates raise questions

ELLSWORTH — With the start of the academic year well underway and COVID-19 back-to-school plans in place for Maine schools, educators, parents and community members may be wondering what the vaccination rate is for eligible students ages 12 to 18 in local school districts.

The Maine Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) partnered with the Maine Department of Education (DOE) to publish that data, resulting in an interactive map where viewers can see estimated vaccination rates broken up by school administrative unit (SAU).

However, questions have been raised regarding the accuracy of the data, due in part to substantially high rates listed in certain local districts.

For Regional School Unit 24 (RSU 24) and the Ellsworth School Department, student vaccination rates are estimated to be 95 percent-plus in each district, according to the interactive map.

That is significantly higher than county-wide data available on the state’s COVID-19 dashboard, which shows that 56 percent of 12- to 15-year-olds in Hancock County have received one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine and 65 percent of those ages 16 to 19 have received one dose.

In Washington County, where RSU 24’s Ella Lewis School is located, the state’s dashboard lists a vaccination rate of 37 percent for those ages 12 to 15 who have received one dose and 43 percent for ages 16 to 19.

According to the map, RSU 25, which serves the towns of Bucksport, Orland, Prospect and Verona Island, is closer to Hancock County vaccination levels, with its student vaccination rate listed at 60 to 64 percent.

In an Aug. 24 press release, DHHS Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew said the data was intended to help the public make informed health decisions.

“These data will equip school leaders with information to make the best decisions for their communities and help parents and students better understand vaccination rates in their areas,” she said. “Paired with our work to support schools in offering vaccination clinics and promoting the benefits of these safe and effective vaccines, we can curb the spread of COVID-19 by boosting vaccination rates in schools throughout Maine.”

The statement explains that the estimated rates are “based on the count of youth vaccinated in each ZIP code as reported to the Maine CDC on people of all ages who have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.”

Additionally, “the number of youth in each SAU is based on Maine DOE data on the number of youth ages 12 to 18 for whom the SAU was financially responsible as of June 2021.”

The data will be updated about every two weeks.

Starting Sept. 1, the Maine DHHS will also start collecting and publishing monthly school staff vaccination rates for public schools, charter schools, private schools and career and technical institutions.

At the RSU 24 Board of Directors meeting Aug. 30, Superintendent Michael Eastman questioned the accuracy of RSU 24 having a 95 percent student vaccination rate.

At that same meeting, the board voted to uphold its previous decision to make mask-wearing optional at schools within the district.

Eastman told The American that the district is working to put together accurate numbers of RSU 24 students who have been vaccinated.

At the board’s Sept. 7 meeting, Eastman shared the data for two of the district’s schools, Peninsula School in Prospect Harbor and Ella Lewis School in Steuben, where vaccination rates of eligible students stood at 12 percent and 10.5 percent, respectively.

He again questioned the accuracy of the data available on the interactive map.

According to notes listed below the interactive map, some information could skew the data.

For example, vaccinated students who attend charter or private schools outside of the SAU where they reside are counted as being part of that SAU. Additionally, data may be excluded regarding vaccinations administered through the Department of Defense, the Department of Veterans Affairs and some Native American tribes in Maine.

“These are only estimates of the vaccination rate given the different sources and limitations of the data,” reads one disclaimer. “The analytic team at Maine DHHS and DOE believe that the value of these estimates exceeds their limitations.”

Kelli Deveaux, director of communications for Maine DOE and Robert Long, Maine CDC’s director of communications, both reiterated those notes in separate emails to The American.

Deveaux said that questions regarding how a community would use the data “is one for the health experts or maybe Dr. Shah during his weekly briefing.” She added that Maine DOE’s role “was to provide student counts for the denominator in the equation.”

Rebecca Alley

Rebecca Alley

Reporter at The Ellsworth American
Rebecca is the Schoodic-area reporter and covers the towns of Eastbrook, Franklin, Hancock, Lamoine, Sorrento, Sullivan, Waltham, Winter Harbor and Trenton. She lives in Ellsworth with her husband and baby boy who was joyously welcomed in June 2020. Feel free to send tips and story ideas to [email protected]

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