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Oklahoma sees third-highest increase in kindergarten vaccine exemptions

A nurse wipes a teenager's arm with an alcohol pad at a COVID-19 vaccination drive at Voice of Praise Baptist Church in Oklahoma City on Sept. 25, 2021.
Rebecca Najera
Oklahoma Watch
A nurse wipes a teenager's arm with an alcohol pad at a COVID-19 vaccination drive at Voice of Praise Baptist Church in Oklahoma City on Sept. 25, 2021.

Oklahoma had the third-highest increase in vaccine exemption rates among kindergartners in the nation, according to the CDC.

Exemption rates during the 2022-23 school year rose to 4.7% of Oklahoma kindergartners, which is 1.2% more than the year before.

Overall, vaccine coverage in the U.S. sits at 93% of kindergartners. The CDC says exemptions over 5% can increase the risk for outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases.

Required vaccines in Oklahoma schools combat diseases like chickenpox, measles and mumps. Medical exemptions must be approved by a licensed physician in Oklahoma. Parents seeking religious and philosophical exemptions only have to fill out a form.

Dr. Steven Crawford, a family physician and board chairman of the Oklahoma Alliance of Healthy Families, said kindergarten is an important marker for child vaccinations against multiple diseases. Without these vaccines, children can risk becoming seriously ill or even dying from childhood diseases like measles and whooping cough.

“When we get them all together, we want to make sure they're all protected from transmitting the infection to others,” Crawford said.

Crawford said this uptick in exemption rates could be attributed to numerous things. One reason could be barriers to accessing health care during the COVID-19 pandemic or parents not having enough time to make it to the doctor’s office.

The 2022-23 kindergarten class became age-eligible to complete most state-required vaccinations during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the CDC.

“That becomes one of the challenges that occurred, and with that, children become eligible to start school, and they haven't been vaccinated just because of the barriers that occurred,” Crawford said.

Crawford also said vaccine hesitancy during the COVID-19 pandemic likely impacted these results.

“There was a lot of discussion on the internet, particularly Dr. Google, talked a lot about how bad these vaccines are, and that they would cause all kinds of harm to children and adults, particularly the COVID vaccines, and it brought a doubt about many vaccines, not just the COVID,” Crawford said.

In the past, Oklahoma has considered rules that would have made it more difficult to get vaccine exemptions for nonmedical reasons.

In 2020, Oklahoma State Department of Health officials proposed a rule that would have required parents who opt their kids out of vaccinations for nonmedical reasons to complete a vaccine education series provided by a local health department. The series was meant to help parents comprehend individual and community risks.

Officials also proposed exemptions expire after the sixth grade unless a parent renews them before enrolling their child in seventh grade. Both rules failed to advance.

Crawford said it’s important to look toward science-based resources and websites when making decisions on vaccinations. He also said he understands vaccine hesitancy, and he likes to have conversations with people who might feel that way toward vaccines.

“You provide appropriate, science basic information to them, and try to answer their concerns, and … you do it in a nonjudgmental, positive way,” Crawford said.

Crawford said his belief in the importance of vaccinations was founded in his childhood, where he recalls taking the first oral polio vaccine on a sugar cube. He said it’s important to remember the impacts of vaccine-preventable diseases when considering vaccinations today.

“I actually had friends in school that had had polio, and you see the kid with a withered leg, and you go ‘My God, I don't want that,’ or you see kids that you knew that were on an iron lung,” Crawford said. “My parents saw that, and they definitely made me go get the polio vaccine when it first came out.”

Jillian Taylor has been StateImpact Oklahoma's health reporter since August 2023.