As children throughout Massachusetts head back to school, they should be focused on learning — not whether they will get the measles. This week, we are filing a bill called the Community Immunity Act to protect children’s health by reducing the threat of preventable diseases. The Community Immunity Act will fix serious flaws in the state’s existing public health systems for immunizations and exemptions, with the goal of safeguarding not just the health of our youth, but also the health of their families, their teachers, our seniors, and everyone in the Commonwealth.
There are four major flaws in the current system: inconsistent immunization requirements among various places where large groups of children routinely congregate, like schools and summer camps; lack of a standardized, statewide process for immunization exemptions, meaning each school creates its own process for granting exemptions, resulting in vast inconsistencies in localized immunization rates throughout the Commonwealth; no state-level reporting requirements for immunization and exemption data (any current reporting is strictly voluntary), nor authority for the Department of Public Health to collect the data, yielding incomplete public health information; and no requirement for schools and other programs to inform parents or guardians about the immunization rates in those programs.
In the 2018-19 school year, 118 Massachusetts kindergarten programs reported that the student population fell below the 95 percent community immunization rate for measles. That’s nearly 15 percent of all kindergarten programs reporting immunization data to DPH. And that number reflects only the programs that chose to report to DPH. Since reporting is entirely voluntary under the current system, more than 200 additional elementary school programs did not submit any vaccination information whatsoever.
The existing system failures put everyone in the Commonwealth at risk. But the system can be fixed.
The Community Immunity Act offers a comprehensive set of solutions. First, all child care centers, K-12 schools, summer camps, and colleges and universities will be covered by the Act and will need to comply with the same immunization schedule, to be set by DPH.
Second, any exemptions to the immunization schedule, whether medical or religious, will need to be approved by the DPH, using standardized forms and a consistently-applied application process.
Third, all covered programs will be required to submit immunization and exemption data to the DPH, and all of the aggregate data about each program will be published online, so parents can easily check immunization rates for a particular program.
Fourth, if and when programs veer into dangerous territory where immunization rates drop too low to offer meaningful public health protection, covered programs will need to inform the parents, and immunization educational outreach will be conducted.
Back-to-school worries should not include the potential resurgence of measles or other serious illnesses. The Legislature must act now to prevent future outbreaks of dangerous yet avoidable disease.
Becca Rausch is a state senator for the Norfolk, Bristol, and Middlesex District. Paul Donato is a state representative for the 35th Middlesex District.