Will 2020 bring a truce in Washington’s anti-vax wars? One can hope. But don’t bet on it

Loopholes are tightening for Washington families who can’t or won’t have their children immunized but who still expect public schools to welcome them. Likewise, the stakes are rising for K-12 students who either don’t have all the required shots or can’t prove they do.

As of last fall, Washington families can no longer cite a personal or philosophical reason for opting out of the standard MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccine; the Legislature ended that exemption last year. Don’t be surprised if pressure grows to end the religious exemption, too, emulating California’s tough immunization laws.

What’s at stake for kids who don’t meet vaccine mandates? Seattle Public Schools offered a sneak peek this week; for the first time, the district used a sweep approach to crack down on incomplete immunization records, barring hundreds of students from class Wednesday.

Legislators acted prudently last year to protect children and general public health. The resurgence of preventable infectious diseases that can kill or disable people — and often lead to backbreaking medical bills — is a national disgrace.

Faced with a measles outbreak that eventually sickened 87 people in four counties, including two in Pierce, it’s natural that elected officials stepped up efforts to reach the “herd immunity” threshold — and our state is far from the 95-percent school vaccination rate needed to get there.

But resistance remains intense. We expect the showdown between immunization backers and anti-vaxxers will resume in Olympia during the 2020 legislative session, which starts Monday.

There are modest additional steps that state lawmakers should consider this year. Chief among them: More oversight and a no-nonsense expectation that school district leaders will enforce immunization laws, not leave it to the discretion of individual principals.

A state audit, released in December, found that principals in a handful of districts didn’t exclude non-compliant students from campus out of concern it would burden staff and reduce school funding. That’s unacceptable.

Another problem: Not all schools submit their immunization data to the Washington Department of Health, because the reporting system is voluntary. Worse, the state’s data-collection software is unreliable, according to some officials, leading to concerns that some schools are left out.

Lawmakers who reviewed the audit Wednesday expressed alarm that the Legislature made a major change to immunization policy last year based on untrustworthy data.

“That needs to never happen again, because legislators took votes on that information, and health officials who use that information should know better,” said Rep. Vicki Kraft at a hearing of the Joint Legislative Audit & Review Committee. Kraft is a Republican from Clark County, the epicenter of last year’s measles epidemic.

The state also should reinforce professionals on the front lines of student health. School nurse positions have vanished due to budget cuts in Tacoma and other districts. But who’s in the best position to engage families on the importance of vaccination? School nurses. So state budget writers should make funding them a priority.

Herd immunity is a great goal to aim for, but it’s an open question whether Washington can attain it. While data from the 2018-19 school year indicates a steady rise in kindergarten immunization rates, the statewide average of 86.3 percent shows we still have a long way to go.

Locally, some districts exceed the average, including Tacoma (89.1 percent) and Peninsula (93.4 percent, well on the way to the 95-percent gold standard). Others — Steilacoom (79.1), Federal Way (79.9) and Fife (83.9) — have work to do.

But legislators need not go overboard this year by making more big changes to immunization law. After eliminating one exemption in 2019, they should track the results for a few years before they consider scrapping another.

The long-term goal is to widen a circle of protection around vulnerable children. The short-term goal should be improving public trust through meticulous data collection and stronger accountability. 2020 would be a fine time for a truce in the anti-vax wars.