ELLSWORTH — As of Sept. 1, pre-K through 12th-grade and college students in Maine schools may no longer use philosophical or religious reasons for waiving the standard immunization rules for attending school. That’s the date that amendments to state vaccination laws, approved in 2019, take effect. In addition, nursery school and health-care facility employees may no longer use the two vaccination exemptions.
For local schools, reminding parents of the new vaccination laws when the national conversation has centered on COVID-19 vaccinations for months is the first step.
“We’ve sent notices to all parents,” Union 93 Superintendent Mark Hurvitt said. “You have to be vaccinated, COVID aside, to get into school.”
The law requires pre-K through 12th-graders to provide proof of immunization against diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis, measles, mumps, rubella, polio and varicella. Students in grades 7 through 12 must also be immunized against meningococcal disease. There are still medical exemptions. Vaccinations against COVID-19 are not required for students or staff.
There is an exception for students with an individualized education plan (IEP) who used the philosophical or religious exemption on or before Sept. 1, 2021. Those students may still claim the exemption, with a statement from a licensed physician, nurse practitioner or physician’s assistant that the parent or guardian, or student if 18 years of age, consulted with the health-care provider and is aware of the risks and benefits of immunization.
“I think what’s going to happen is some people will comply and some will ignore it,” Hurvitt said.
At least one local family is moving out of state because of the new law. Blue Hill resident and former Ellsworth High School soccer coach Katye Lacasse is convinced her oldest son was brain damaged by vaccinations as a three-year-old. He was later diagnosed with autism. “We had a typically developing child who was no longer typical,” she said.
Because of that experience, she and her husband Jim Lacasse did not vaccinate their other three children. And while her oldest son is medically exempted from the vaccination requirements, her other children are not. “The only exempt person in our family is actually one who’s vaccine injured,” she said. “This law was truly devastating. My kids can’t go to school anymore.”
Studies have shown that there is no link between vaccines and developing autism, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Lacasse’s three oldest sons all graduated high school this year but can’t attend college — even online college —in Maine without vaccinations. Her elementary-school-age son is already enrolled in a Tennessee school starting in early August.
“It’s devastating to us, to my parents, to my family,” Lacasse said. “We’re giving up a house we built, a community we’ve been a part of for 20 years. We don’t believe Maine is any longer the way life should be.”
Hancock County holds a high rate of students exempted from vaccinations, with 10.1 percent of students entering kindergarten unvaccinated in 2019-20, according to data issued by the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention. This is considerably higher than the 5.9 percent reported statewide. Among Hancock County kindergarteners, 0.2 percent were medical exemptions, 1.2 percent were religious exemptions and 9.4 percent were philosophical exemptions.
For Ellsworth schools, Superintendent Dan Higgins said a reminder was sent to families of the required vaccinations. “That is the direction we’re headed. We’re going to follow what the statutory language says, and we will respond to as we need to.”
The new law passed at a time when some local schools were experiencing an outbreak of pertussis — commonly known as whooping cough — in 2019, with older students immunized against the disease, but who may not have received booster shots, falling ill. In 2018, the statewide rate of pertussis was 33.16 cases per 100,000 — more than eight times the national average. Starting with the 2017-18 school year, middle schoolers were required to have the pertussis booster.
“I do know this will not be smooth,” Hurvitt concluded of the new vaccine rules. “There will be some contentious meetings and phone calls. This won’t be easy on some families who disagree.”