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Thousands of Michigan parents want vaccination waivers despite info sessions


This is the first new school year that parents have to attend vaccination education sessions at their county health department, if they want a vaccination waiver for kids going into preschool, kindergarten, or seventh grade. 

Because Michigan has one of the highest waiver rates in the country, the idea is to make it less convenient to get those waivers.

Before, parents could just sign a waiver at their school, and state health officials worried those waivers were more about ease than actual objections to vaccinations.

But so far, some counties have been slammed by parents who are perfectly willing to sit through 20 to 30- minute, individual sessions with county health workers. 

So far Oakland County has granted nearly 1,800 waivers, while Macomb County has granted another 1,200.

What happens at these individual education sessions? 

"We tell them that if you don't get this vaccination, your child not only remains at risk, they're putting other kids at risk, and if there is a breakout at school your kids could be excluded [from school], possibly for weeks," says Dr. Kevin Lokar, medical director of the Macomb County Health Department. 

In Oakland County, the sessions typically start out with the same question: Why are you seeking this vaccination waiver today?

"We open up with, 'Why are you here today?'" says Shane Bies, the public health nursing services administrator of the Oakland County Health Divison. "And we go into a conversation with them about what their own individual concerns are. And it's been very respectful and educational for everyone involved." 

The state provides counties with talking points they can use in these sessions, from reassuring parents about how some vaccines are produced, to how staff should respond when parents say their religious beliefs prevent them from getting their kids immunized. 

Some of thosepointersread: 

  • "Objection to vaccine for religious reasons may be masking the parent’s or guardian’s real question regarding safety, which is not a true religious objection. This would be a philosophical objection. However, understanding and acceptance may need to occur in regards to a person’s religious beliefs.
  • "A religion may not necessarily be opposed to vaccines (or western medicine), but the person’s religious views are real to them. Each person has the right to practice their beliefs and choose the form of health care they want. 
  • "The key to this conversation is to respect their religious views while informing them of your concerns about vaccine-preventable diseases (the risk of disease and benefit of vaccinations). You may want to add in some vaccine-preventable disease stories."

Do any parents change their minds after sitting through these education sessions? 

Not really, says Dr. Lokar.  

"The parents who are making these waiver appointments are very committed [to getting those waivers.] I'm not aware of any changing minds," he says." 

Yet in Oakland County, Bies says about a third of parents who go through the education sessions say they do plan to follow up on what they've learned, either with the county or with their own doctors. 

He says a sizeable chunk of the parents they're seeing aren't so much anti-vaccination as "vaccination hesitant." 

"And when they do that, they kind of fall into those situations where they don't have their child fully vaccinated, but they will try to follow up in one to two years to get their child fully vaccinated." 

Now that it's tougher to get a waiver in these counties, will fewer kids get them? 

Probably, but it's too soon to be completely sure. 

"We were hoping to reduce waivers by half," says Dr. Lokar at the Macomb County Health Department, "but we're already at 1,236, so who knows?" 

Lokar says last year, before the law change, about 3,000 kids in Macomb County filed vaccination waivers through their schools. 

In Oakland County, some 4,000 waivers were filed through the school districts last year.  

Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health. She was a 2023 Pulitzer Prize finalist for her abortion coverage.
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