Legislators move to delay whooping cough vaccine

Responding to panicked school districts that insist they will be unable to meet the looming whooping cough immunization deadline, state legislators are attempting to forge a last-minute change this week that will grant districts 30 extra days after classes begin to verify vaccinations of all seventh- through 12th-grade students.

The state's middle and high schools face the prospect of having to certify the vaccination records of up to 3 million students, one of the largest such efforts in California history.

The bill to extend the deadline, Senate Bill 614 by Sen. Christine Kehoe, D-San Diego, was unanimously approved Monday by the Assembly Health Committee. Advocates expected it to be heard on the Assembly floor and then the Senate floor on Thursday.

School officials and advocates say they welcome a 30-day extension, though some are skeptical it will solve the problem. "It's next to impossible to have enough personnel to get a handle on it," said Cindy Dodge, program manager for health services for San Juan Unified. "I think those that wrote the laws had no clue."

At Elk Grove Unified, 33 percent of seventh- through 12th-grade students had submitted proof of vaccination by the beginning of June. Sacramento City Unified last week had proof from 21 percent of students.

According to data from the California Association of School Business Officials, which has pushed for the deadline extension, some districts had proof of immunization for only 5 percent of their middle and high school students as of late June. At the year-round high schools that opened last week in the Los Angeles Unified district, approximately 50 percent of students had boosters.

The original legislation, which was approved last fall and took effect July 1, requires schools to turn away any middle or high school student who has not received a whooping cough booster shot or had a parent sign an exemption form. This could cost districts millions of dollars in crucial state Average Daily Attendance funding.

Public health and school officials agree the booster requirement is an important step in preventing the spread of a once-forgotten disease that last year reached epidemic levels in the state. In 2010, more than 9,100 Californians fell ill with whooping cough, the largest number since 1947.

Many California schools, which have seen $18 billion in funding cuts over the past three years, have lost nurses and clerical staff trained to administer vaccines and read vaccination cards.

Compliance faces another hurdle, as county public health departments have also lost significant staffing. Sacramento's, for example, has shrunk from 300 staff members three years ago to 169 today.

"We really are trying very hard," said Dr. Glennah Trochet, Sacramento County's public health officer. "This was mandated. But there's no funding for seeing it happen."

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