Vaccinations are vital to maintaining the overall health of our kids and our communities. Unfortunately, Colorado lags behind other states in vaccination rates for child care- and school-aged-children, leaving tens of thousands of kids vulnerable to severe illness from vaccine-preventable diseases. Colorado ranked 44th in the nation for vaccination rates for kindergartners in 2020. The rates of MMR vaccines in the state for kindergartners are low enough to put many of our schools at risk of an outbreak–which can prove deadly even to otherwise healthy children. Routine vaccinations are even down from 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, leaving children even more vulnerable to vaccine-preventable illnesses.
One of the major factors affecting Colorado’s childhood vaccination rates is the lenient vaccine exemption policies in the state. Regulations for school-aged children’s immunizations in Colorado are incredibly lenient when compared with other states. In addition to a Medical Exemption, Colorado is one of only 17 other states to also offer a personal belief exemption, now called a Non-Medical Exemption (NME) in the state. Previously, no effort was required to claim a personal belief or religious exemption from school-aged immunization requirements, and no way statewide to tell if parents were not in compliance or taking a personal belief exemption for their child since there was no standardization.
In 2020, Senate Bill 20-163 was passed to create an “equal-effort” system, where parents seeking an NME are required to submit the same kind of documentation as a parent seeking a Medical Exemption or a parent submitting their child’s immunization records to their school. The legislation created a Certificate of Non-Medical Exemption that needed to be obtained either through an immunizing provider or through an online educational module about vaccination. This Certificate must be done at 2, 4, 6, 12, and 18 months of age for child care, and must be done again before kindergarten and every year succeeding that the parent still wishes to claim an NME for their child.
Despite this new process, we are still learning what the impact will be on reducing our high rates of parents opting their children out of school required vaccinations. The relative ease of obtaining an NME creates an environment where vaccine rates in schools are allowed to remain at dangerously low rates, allowing the spread of severe, preventable illnesses parents may not fear as much as they used to. The difficulty we face lies in overcoming vaccine hesitancy or inaction on the part of parents to raise the immunization rates of child care- and school-aged-children.
Immunize Colorado has created a factsheet to dispel myths about Medical and Non-Medical Exemptions, clarify what is currently required for children to enter child care or kindergarten, and express the enormous benefits to having children vaccinated at the same age, before they start gathering in schools or child care environments. This resource will help parents stay up-to-date on the latest required vaccines in Colorado, while also emphasizing the importance of getting children vaccinated.