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Dozens of Bismarck students not up-to-date on vaccines excluded from school

BISMARCK -- About 50 students in Bismarck Public Schools were excluded from classes Monday, Oct. 1, for not meeting state immunization requirements.

Monday was the cutoff date for students to be in compliance. Under state law, school districts must enforce these requirements, and, if any children are not fully immunized or do not have an immunization exemption on file, they're excluded from school.

Kate Gartner, the district's nurse coordinator, said the number of excluded students on Monday is up "slightly" from previous years. Gartner said the roughly 50 students excluded Monday were not up-to-date on their vaccines.

"We do a lot of leg work to make sure we're not excluding kids who don't need to be excluded," said Gartner, adding that staff send emails, texts and make phone calls to parents. "We've done our due diligence to make sure they're aware that they're not in compliance."

Gartner said the uptick in excluded students is due in part to a new requirement for a second dose of the meningococcal vaccine, as well as the number of new students in the district who may have not have current records on file.

All children entering seventh and 10th grades are required to have one dose of the meningococcal vaccine. However, starting this school year, students in grades 11 and 12 are required to have a second dose.

Molly Howell, manager of the North Dakota Department of Health immunization program, said Monday the department does not currently have data on the number of students from across the state who were barred from school on Monday.

A school survey was sent last week to districts to report their immunization coverage and exemption rate, but that's not due until next month.

Mike Bitz, superintendent for Mandan Public Schools, said Monday he was unaware of any students who were barred from school.

Howell said health officials have been monitoring immunization rates in a statewide immunization registry, and the number of students who have received the second dose of the meningococcal vaccine "aren't as high as we'd like." As of Sept. 25, it was only 61 percent, she said.

This year was the first year the exclusion date was set for Oct. 1. Previously, the cutoff day was 30 days after school started, but because schools start at different times, the health department wanted to reduce confusion and have a standardized date.

Vaccination exemptions rates in North Dakota have remained "fairly flat" from last year to this year, according to Howell.

The state allows for three types of exemptions: medical, religious and personal belief. A health care provider's signature is needed for a medical exemption. A parent's signature is required for religious or personal belief exemptions.

The health department previously provided funding to the North Dakota State University Center for Immunization Research and Education to study immunization coverage and exemption rates.

According to the center's 2016 report, during the 2014-15 school year, North Dakota ranked as one of five states with the lowest kindergarten immunization rates, with only 89 percent of kindergartners fully immunized.

Additionally, the state has seen a six-fold increase in the number of parents filing exemptions, the report said. Private schools in North Dakota have a far higher rate of exemptions, nearly twice the rate that is seen in public schools, according to the report.

Last month, there was a measles scare in Burleigh County. A person believed to be infected with the virus had contact with two private schools in Bismarck. Twenty-seven Light of Christ Catholic School students who did not have the measles vaccine were temporarily held from school until test results from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention determined the person did not have measles.

Howell said the recommended immunization rate for measles is 95 percent, because the virus is so contagious. Kindergartner immunization coverage dipped slightly last year, at 94.25 percent, she said, adding she's hopeful it will be above the recommended percentage this year.

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