Despite misinformation, many York County children are getting vaccines

Meredith Willse
York Dispatch

Canadochly Elementary kindergartner Charley Tice got all of her vaccinations in May, a few days after her birthday.

Her mom, Tonya Howarth, said her daughter was a brave girl. Charley didn't even need her mother with her for the shots.

Tonya only balked at giving her youngest child the COVID vaccination — which is not required for school registration — out of concern for possible side effects.

“All the others are up to date — no issues,” she said.

Charley Tice, 5, puts on her Frozen-themed backpack at her home in Lower Windsor Township, Thursday, Aug. 11, 2022. Tice willl begin kindergarten at Canadochly Elementary School on Aug. 22. Dawn J. Sagert photo

The nation saw kindergartners' mandatory immunizations drop during the pandemic, but York County remained high — about 98% — with the noted exception of COVID vaccines.

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“That’s a remarkable thing,” York City Health Bureau director Dr. Matt Howie said, about the county's immunization rates.

The Associated Press reported that the national average rates for last year were about 94% for measles, whooping cough and chickenpox, roughly 1% lower than the previous school year.

In that same period in York County, there were 4,624 enrolled kindergartners and close to 98% were vaccinated. A little over 100 requested exemptions, according to state Department of Education data, of which none were denied. School officials decide whether to accept exemptions or not. Health Department officials step in to decide difficult cases.

Across the state, there were 122,800 enrolled kindergartners with around a 97% immunization rate. More than 3,000 requested exemptions; over 100 were denied.

Howie said the numbers for this year are still coming in, as some kindergartners are registering late, which means they don't have the data for this school year. It's still too early to say how the coming year's vaccination rates are trending, he said.

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Howie didn't have a number for COVID vaccination rates but did know that those numbers are lower than the department wants them to be. 

There are a host of reasons for that.

“What we’re seeing in children is parents have a similar hesitation in some percentages that adults do,” he said. 

He believes consistent messaging will win the day and is optimistic about the new non-mRNA vaccine coming out. 

“mRNA vaccines are excellent and very safe," he said, "but there’s still kind of a distrust that I think our community has when it comes to mRNA vaccines because of the speed at which they were developed."

He has no hesitation about vaccines, but those who do can use Novavax, a protein vaccine against COVID. He hopes parents will be more comfortable with those vaccines. 

Vaccinations are safe and they’re effective, Howie said, and he recommended that parents who have any hesitation consult a trusted health care provider for more information.

Overall, in 2019-2020, there were 5,193 enrolled kindergartners in York County with an almost 98% immunization rate. There were close to 150 exemptions requested, three of which were denied. 

The year before that, there were 5,192 kindergartners with immunization rates around 98%. Over 100 requested an exemption and none were denied. 

Charley Tice, 5, gets ready to go to Friendly’s for lunch with her family in Lower Windsor Township, Thursday, Aug. 11, 2022. Charley willl begin kindergarten at Canadochly Elementary School on Aug. 22. Dawn J. Sagert photo

Howie said one of the concerns about the pandemic was how it would impact people's health care and their perception of health care. The worry was that primary health care visits and standard vaccination rates would decline. 

But the numbers showed the local system worked around the pandemic and the students were vaccinated. 

Howie speculates that's because of the strong primary care base in the area that kept the children vaccinated and the parents well-informed. He said with such an established base, parents will trust those doctors over the misinformation they see online. 

“And that is an incredibly important tool to keep our community safer,” he said. 

Howie said the need for vaccinations is an important conversation to have right now. 

For example, there is currently a polio scare in New York state, where the disease was found in several water samples earlier this month. 

Charley Tice, 5, looks through a photo book at her home in Lower Windsor Township, Thursday, Aug. 11, 2022. Tice willl begin kindergarten at Canadochly Elementary School on Aug. 22. Dawn J. Sagert photo

“There are pockets around the country where there are groups that don’t embrace immunization and do exemptions on a much higher rate,” Howie said, explaining that the affected area in New York has a lower than average immunization rate.

When comparing immunization rates to that area, York's are much higher. 

Because of the lower percentage, there was a vulnerable group that was enough to allow polio to pass from person to person when exposed. Howie said that not all who contract polio are impacted catastrophically. But for those who are, he added, "It's profound."

Another example is chickenpox, Howie said. Children who catch chickenpox aren't required to get the vaccine.

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Years ago, chickenpox cases were very dramatic, but today doctors see mild cases that are hard to differentiate from a simple rash. He credits the change to the vaccine and said that if someone possibly contracted chickenpox, it wouldn't hurt to get the vaccine, too. 

— Reach Meredith Willse at or on Twitter at @MeredithWillse.

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