State officials consider mandating COVID vaccines for child care and school children

About the Author
Elizabeth New (Hovde)
Policy Analyst and Director of the Centers for Health Care and Worker Rights

A technical advisory group of the State Board of Health met Thursday to discuss whether to require Washington children to have COVID-19 vaccines for school attendance.  

The session was open to the public, so I was able to follow the four hours of presentation and discussion. That’s available here, with a state recap here. Two more meetings are scheduled for Feb. 17 and 24, starting at 9 a.m. Agendas for those meetings will be posted on a meeting information page as soon as they become available. (They’re not there yet.) 

The advisory group is helping the State Board of Health consider whether to add COVID-19 to the list of “vaccine-preventable diseases” for children under Chapter 246-105  of the Washington Administrative Code.  

That move is interesting in itself. COVID-19 is not a vaccine-preventable disease, so it is not clear to me that the board has the authority to mandate a COVID vaccine for children. That puts the advisory group in an awkward position, as does being tasked with providing advice based on incomplete information about a vaccine that only some children have only recently had available to them. 

The entire advisory process seems set up to fail. The biggest takeaway I got from the meeting was “we don’t know enough yet.”  

Answers from presenters in the meeting included, “I don’t have great information for you there,” and, “There are not any published studies comparing what you’re asking.” It was also mentioned that there are “break-through cases,” in which vaccinated people can transmit and spread COVID-19. 

State Board of Health Vice-Chair Dr. Tom Pendergrass was at the meeting and clearly seemed to favor imposing such a mandate. The advisory group’s work Thursday, he said, “reflects that we’re believing that there is a rationale for trying to vaccinate school-age children.”  

Pendergrass and other board members should be worried about the strong feelings of parents and the general public on COVID-related mandates. Those strong feelings are contributing to the growing trend of families leaving public education. A Feb. 4 report from the Washington state Caseload Forecast Council shows a marked decline in public school enrollment, as families opt for homeschooling, charter schools and private schools.   

Thursday’s public meeting started with pieces of sound advice from several of the advisory group members. The very first one was, “Don’t worry about making the best decision, make a reasonable decision. And avoid bad decisions.”  

That’s good advice for the advisory group to heed. Bad decisions are harder to avoid when you don’t have sufficient information. 

Two years of COVID-related rules and mandates seem shifting and arbitrary, and many workers and families don’t feel that public officials hear their concerns or care about their well-being.

Many parents are vaccinating their children voluntarily. But the science shows that the COVID vaccines are not foolproof and may pose some risks. Overall, forcing a COVID vaccine on children of parents who have concerns would not resolve ongoing questions or result in the best health policy. 

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