Sonoma County childhood vaccination rates rise as stricter California law kicks in

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Albie Cooper was a brave trouper Friday.

The 4-year-old held the hand of his older brother, Emmett, 6, and braced as a Kaiser Permanente pediatrics nurse prepared three injections for diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis, measles, mumps, rubella, chicken pox and polio.

Emmett seemed to know what was coming, covering his eyes with his free hand, occasionally looking through his fingers. When it was all over — after all the tears — the two brothers comforted each other and exchanged a fist bump.

Their mother, Annie Cooper of Santa Rosa, had no misgivings about the ordeal.

“Not for a second,” Cooper said when asked if she would reconsider immunizations for her young boys. “I just know it’s important not only to protect ourselves but to protect children who are immunocompromised or too young to be vaccinated.”

Broader parental awareness is part of what’s driving increasing rates of immunization for schoolchildren in California, public health officials say. The other major factor is a new state law, now passing its first full year of implementation, which requires nearly all children be vaccinated before entering kindergarten.

The law, Senate Bill 277, established the strictest immunization requirements in the nation for kids in public and private school, eliminating exemptions previously granted for personal and religious beliefs. It was signed by Gov. Jerry Brown in 2015 and went into effect last year.

The share of fully immunized students across the state attending kindergarten during the 2016-17 school year rose from 92.8 percent to 95.6 percent, a 2.8 percentage point increase over the previous year, according to data released this week by the California Department of Public Health. That’s the highest rate since 2002, when the currently required schedule of vaccinations went into effect.

Sonoma County, which has a history of lower rates compared to the state, also logged an increase in vaccination rates. The local share of fully immunized kindergarten students climbed from 92.1 to 93.4 percent.

Though not as big a jump as the overall state increase, local public health officials welcomed the news.

“I’m heartened by this information,” said Karen Holbrook, Sonoma County’s deputy health officer. “We want to protect our kids and our community, and vaccines are the best way to protect against these particular illnesses.”

It’s the second consecutive year that Sonoma County has seen an increase in vaccination rates among children entering school, Holbrook said.

Prior to SB 277, another law — AB 2109 — added a number of requirements for parents seeking personal belief exemptions. In the wake of those changes, the number of personal belief exemptions dropped significantly, and the local kindergarten vaccination rate rose from 90 percent during the 2014-15 school year to 92.1 last year, Holbrook said.

Personal belief exemptions are still allowed in limited, special cases, but their number in Sonoma County has plummeted from 327 last year to 92 in the current school year. Exemptions for medical reasons also are allowed, and the number of those actually increased this year in the county, from 15 last year to 109 in the current school year.

Donna Bassett, a school nurse for the Sonoma County Office of Education, said the vaccination data released this week show that some parents who might have obtained a personal belief exemption actually had their children vaccinated.

“I think as a whole the school nurses are encouraged that the community is taking this seriously and that the school administrators are supportive of the state law,” said Basset, who is secretary of the Sonoma County School Nurses Association.

Catherine Flores Martin, director of the nonprofit California Immunization Coalition, said the rise in immunization rates is largely because of the efforts of school nurses, public health officials, parents and providers all working together to make sure kids are up to date on their vaccinations.

“What it also tells me is that a lot of parents who had fears and concerns about vaccines are making the choice to vaccinate their children,” she said, adding that parents are to a larger extent vaccinating their kids rather than home schooling them or moving out of the state.

Dr. Angela Zarate, a local pediatrician for Kaiser Permanente, stressed the importance of childhood immunizations.

“It’s literally one of the most important things a parent can do to assure they will stay the healthiest they will be,” she said.

In reporting immunization rates, the state public health officials designated three colored categories for county vaccination rates: red for counties with overall rates between 77 and 89.9 percent; yellow for rates between 90 and 94.5 percent; and green for counties between 95 and 100 percent. Southern California saw a number of its counties go from yellow to green, including Los Angeles, San Bernardino and Ventura, while several counties in Northern California went from red to yellow, including Del Norte, Shasta and Siskiyou.

Sonoma County stayed yellow, while Marin County went from red to yellow. Holbrook, the county’s deputy health officer, said she was “optimistic” about getting Sonoma County into the green zone.

“It’s incremental improvement. I hope that we can continue to have these increases year after year,” she said.

You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 707-521-5213 or

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