SEBASTOPOL, Calif. (KGO) -- With the new school year underway, ABC7 News is taking a closer look at immunization rates across the Bay Area.
According to data released by the California Department of Public Health, 142 Bay Area schools are below the 95% rate for measles immunizations that health officials recommend. That's 11.08% of the 1,282 Bay Area Schools reported.
ABC7 News I-Team Reporter Melanie Woodrow did some digging and discovered four out of the 10 schools with the lowest immunization rates are in Sonoma County.
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According to the Sonoma County Health Officer, the last reported case of measles in Sonoma County was in 2011. Still, the low immunization rates for children in kindergarten from 2018-2019 in Sonoma County is a concern for health officials.
There's no way to tell the difference just looking at the children playing at Sebastopol Independent Charter School, but according to data released by the California Department of Public Health only 52% or 23 of the 44 kindergarteners at the school were immunized against measles from 2018 to 2019.
The school's Executive Director Chris Topham says the remaining 21 kindergarteners all had medical exemptions.
"I have heard from some of the parents that there are certain doctors that are more willing than others to provide a medical exemption," said Topham.
Topham agreed to speak with ABC7 News as California works to strengthen immunization laws.
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Governor Gavin Newsom recently signed legislation calling for more scrutiny of doctors giving out high numbers of medical exemptions. Another new law invalidates exemptions from doctors who have faced disciplinary action by the state medical board.
"It's some of the most progressive vaccine legislation that we have in the United States right now," said Dr. Brian Prystowsky, a Santa Rosa based pediatrician.
According to the California Department of Public Health Data, the four Sonoma County schools with the lowest kindergarten measles immunization rates are Sebastopol Independent Charter with 52%, Live Oak Charter with 55%, Sunridge Charter with 60% and the California Virtual Academy of Sonoma with 61%. All four are public schools.
"I feel like Sonoma County is a haven for medical exemptions, for fraudulent medical exemptions in a way that I feel like is really dangerous to the public health of our community," Dr. Prystowsky said.
In addition to talking on-camera with the Executive Director of Sebastopol Independent Charter School, ABC7 News reached out to Live Oak Charter, Sunridge Charter and the California Virtual Academy of Sonoma.
We heard back from Twin Hill Union School District Superintendent Dr. Barbara Bickford regarding Sunridge Charter. In an emailed statement, Dr. Bickford writes, "For school year 19-20 SunRidge School data for Kindergartners shows: 57% immunized for measles. 42% have medical exemptions."
Several schools told ABC7 news the immunization rates for 2019-2020 will get reported in October.
The other six schools with the lowest immunization rates are Marin Waldorf School (a private school) in Marin County with 47%, Vista Oaks Charter School in Contra Costa County with 50%, California Virtual Academy at San Mateo in San Mateo County with 59%, Waldorf School of the Peninsula (a private school) in Santa Clara County with 60%, Berkeley Rose Waldorf School (a private school) in Alameda County with 62% and Glenview Elementary School in Alameda County with 67%.
ABC7 News reached out to each of these schools.
The Director of the Vista Oaks Charter School in Contra Costa County, Joy Groen, issued the following statement via email:
"Vista Oaks is a public charter school that offers an independent study/homeschool program to the students and families we serve. We are not a classroom-based school. As a public school, we are committed to following all California state regulations and guidelines, including those involving immunizations. Vista Oaks is in compliance with all immunizations requirements and will continue to be diligent in our efforts to ensure our students receive a safe, outstanding education. Vista Oaks is required to participate in state standardized testing. Currently, students in grades 3-8 and grade 11 are assessed using computer-based assessments. Kindergarten students do not participate in state-mandated standardized testing. Of our approximately 75 seventh grade students, seven had missing doses of MMR, including two medical exemptions. These students completed testing with their school-age peers. The safety of our students is our top priority and we will continue to comply with the California state guidelines for our school regarding immunizations."
A spokesperson for the Waldorf School of the Peninsula directed ABC7 News to its disease prevention and immunization policy on its website which reads:
"Vaccination is an essential tool for preventing infectious diseases. Vaccines have saved countless lives over the last century, have positively contributed to global health, the eradication of diseases like smallpox, and the near eradication of polio. Waldorf School of the Peninsula strives to ensure the safety and health of all the children in our school. We require parents to follow all state laws regarding immunization and provide valid immunization records upon enrollment from preschool (nursery) to 12th grade. Consistent with state immunization laws, the school is fully prepared to follow County or State requests to keep home children who are not completely immunized against a disease in the event of possible exposure. Vaccination throughout childhood is essential because it helps the immune system to develop protections before children are exposed to diseases. Maintaining a high vaccination rate helps protect the more vulnerable in our community such as parents and children with weak or failing immune systems, and infants who are not yet fully vaccinated. Note that WSP Employees do not give medical advice."
Spokesperson Pierre Laurent also added in his email to ABC7 News, "For the current year, we expect to report rates above 85%. We foresee the trend to continue upward and accelerate."
Across the Bay Area, the three school districts that had the most number of schools below the 95% herd immunity rate were Oakland Unified School District with 16 schools, San Francisco Unified School District with 12 schools and Antioch Unified School District with 6 schools.
ABC7 News reached out to all three school districts for comment. We heard back from two.
In an emailed statement to ABC7 News, Oakland Unified School District Director of Communications John Sasaki writes:
"The numbers you have appear to be accurate as of the 2018-19 deadline for submission to the State of California, but they do not accurately reflect the numbers overall, and there are several reasons why. One of the main issues is delays in entering student information in Aeries, our student tracking system. Our school staff enter all kindergarten immunization information as quickly as they can, but they don't always make it by the deadline. So, in the days and weeks after the deadline, the rates of school immunizations can rise dramatically. As examples, Martin Luther King, Jr. Elementary went from 70% at the deadline to 96% soon thereafter, Manzanita Community School went from 73% to 87% and Glenview Elementary went from 67% to 88%. Any numbers that are lower than the WHO recommended 95% rate are in large part due to students who had some of their immunizations, but not all of them, completed by the deadline and therefore were on conditional admittance to school until they completed their vaccinations. That's especially true for our TK students - who are counted in the kindergarten immunization numbers - who are not necessarily old enough to complete their shots. Also, some students who have not completed their immunizations can remain in the system, even if they are not in school. The good news is OUSD, in partnership with the Alameda County Public Health Department, has for years been on a clear upward trajectory when it comes to immunization rates. Our families are more cognizant of the need to have their children immunized and we are more effectively accounting for all students' immunization status by the deadline. At Glenview Elementary this year, for example, we already know that there are 75 kindergarteners and all of them have all their immunizations in place except for one student, who has a waiver. A healthy student population is critical to our schools and we are ensuring our students have their immunizations in place and are ready to learn and grow when they enter kindergarten and all other grades."
A spokesperson with San Francisco Unified School District writes in an emailed statement, "The results shared on Shotsforschools.org are from one moment in time and therefore may not reflect the most up-to-date numbers. We do not stop our immunization compliance follow up when we report our numbers. Rates do increase as the year progresses."
"It's really rare for someone to actually qualify for a medical exemption," Dr. Prystowsky said.
Sonoma County Health Officer Dr. Celeste Philip agrees.
"Whenever you have a school that is below 95% it is concerning," Dr. Philip said.
Dr. Philip says the percentage of people with medical conditions that make getting an immunization inadvisable is approximately 1-2%. She defined some examples..
"Children who have pediatric leukemia and other types of childhood cancers. There are other individuals that have lifelong immunodeficiency syndromes that are related to genetics," said Dr. Philip.
A spokesperson with the Medical Board of California tells ABC7 News the board's investigations and complaints are confidential by law. After the Attorney General's Office files an accusation against a doctor on behalf of the Board, the investigation becomes public information.
Based on a complaint received in 2017, on July 29th of this year the board filed an accusation against Dr. Kenneth Stoller of San Francisco who has since relocated his office to Santa Rosa. The accusation details Stoller's interactions with 10 patients and alleges in part that he engaged in unprofessional conduct that was grossly negligent and routinely issued exemptions that applied to all vaccines. The accusation says a severe reaction to an earlier dose of a specific vaccine may be a contraindication for another dose of that vaccine or to a dose of a related vaccine that also contains the same constituents, but not to all vaccines.
The San Francisco City Attorney's Office confirms with ABC7 News it had been investigating Dr. Stoller. In an emailed statement, Spokesperson John Cote writes, "Our investigation into Mr. Stoller prompted him to close his practice in San Francisco. We will remain vigilant and continue to protect public health."
ABC7 News called Stoller during normal business hours Thursday and left a voicemail. He did not respond to our call for comment. His Santa Rosa office was closed when ABC7 News went by as it was after business hours.
Healthcare attorney Greg Glaser tells ABC7 News he counsels California physicians on mandatory vaccination laws and has counseled Dr. Stoller. In an emailed statement to ABC7 News, Glaser writes, "The new law, SB276/714, is a direct attack on integrative physicians who protect patients from vaccine injury. There is an inconvenient truth in medicine today that is widely recognized among groups of integrative physicians: integrative physicians are achieving better health outcomes for their patients outside the CDC vaccination schedule. The reason that integrative physicians see this reality more clearly than other groups of physicians is precisely because integrative physicians are the ones most likely to customize patient healthcare recommendations rather than just blindly follow the CDC's one-size-fits-all vaccine schedule. Sadly, one-size-fits-all mandatory vaccine laws are slowly eliminating the control group of healthy patients who do not follow the CDC's one-size-fits-all schedule. It is both unscientific and dishonorable for government to punish a control group of naturally healthy children, by denying these healthy children the right to learn with other children Monday through Friday from 8am-3pm. Think about it in the big picture too -- the government is currently mandating the injection into healthy children of patented corporate biotechnology (yes, vaccines are patented corporate biotechnology)."
In the meantime, Dr. Philip is hopeful new laws will increase Sonoma County's measles immunization rates.
Attorney Greg Glaser tells ABC7 News he has counseled Dr. Stoller about the vaccine medical exemption law. ABC7 News called Stoller during normal business hours Thursday and left a voicemail. He did not respond to our call for comment. His Santa Rosa office was closed when ABC7 News went by as it was after business hours.
Dr. Philip is hopeful new laws will increase Sonoma County's measles immunization rates.
Topham expects the numbers at Sebastopol Independent Charter School to be very different as well.
"I think there may be some families who will feel very, very strong still about not having their child vaccinated and I think home schooling might be their answer and that might be there only answer," said Topham.
He says there's already a 6% uptick in the numbers this year, with 58% of kindergarteners receiving measles vaccinations for 2019-2020. He also says 82% of the school's 7th graders received all of their vaccinations for 2019-2020 including the measles vaccination.
Dr. Philip recommends following the CDC's measles vaccination schedule, with a first dose at 12-15 months and second dose at 4-6 years old.