Valley Stream Education News

Experts say vaccines are vital. Over 100 Valley Stream South High School students went without.

Gap in student vaccine coverage has taken months to address.


Over 100 Valley Stream South High School students went to school this year without being fully vaccinated with “one, some, or all” state-mandated immunizations.

Those were the concerning words disclosed to faculty in an email sent by Principal Matthew Swinson and school nurse Magee Sterlin in April whose subject line read: “Vaccination and Immunization — New York State Law Section 2164 — Urgent Read (2 min).”

Health experts have long credited vaccinations for their fundamental role in protecting the public against the scourge of deadly and infectious diseases. It’s largely why vaccines are a statewide health requirement for millions of students of all ages who receive injections for a robust list of illnesses.

Yet Swinson’s email detailed a distressing picture to staff of a glaring gap in vaccine coverage that included dozens of students who for months did not have the required shots for diseases including hepatitis B, measles, mumps, and rubella.

Swinson, in that same email, issued a stern ultimatum. Letters would be sent to parents of their students’ unvaccinated status and demand they “present proof of vaccination or a confirmed appointment to receive clearance and return to school” by May 1.

“Meeting the vaccination deadline is not only a requirement but also a commitment to the health and safety of yourself and those around you,” wrote Swinson.

The district’s frantic efforts to bring families up to speed and students in line with inoculation requirements weeks from the end of the school year raises an obvious question — Why has the situation gone unresolved for so long?

The Valley Stream Central High School District could not be reached to answer questions as of press time.


State law is clear  —  no vaccines, no entry to school 

Regarding vaccinations, state law with few exceptions draws a hard line: students not fully vaccinated should not be in school.

“Schools are required to exclude the students from school until or unless they have provided proof of compliance,” said State Health Department spokesperson Erin Clary. “To comply, the children must be fully up to date with all age-appropriate immunizations or be in the process of receiving their missing vaccinations.”

Students catching up on vaccinations must receive the first dose of all required shots and be on track for their next dose within 14 days of the due date to return to school.

Those who fail to meet the criteria, noted Clary, are barred from school, and reported to their local health department where their parent or guardian is notified of their responsibility to ensure they are fully vaccinated.

Clary says the department periodically audits anywhere between 150 to 200 schools statewide outside of New York City often with a history of struggling vaccination rates. Audited schools with unvaccinated students could potentially be exposed to legal penalties in the form of fines. But the potential public health risks are just if not more severe.


What is herd immunity and why it matters?

Each infection needs a certain level of vaccination coverage to get the benefits of herd immunity, noted Dr. Jonathan Garellek, an infectious disease specialist at Northwell Health.

Herd immunity, noted Garellek, is “when a sufficient amount of people are immune against a virus, mostly because of vaccination” that the disease can no longer spread and contaminate widely.

In cases like polio, for example, 80 percent of a given population, according to the World Health Organization, must be immune to the disease to achieve herd immunity. For measles, a far more contagious disease, the threshold is far higher — 95 percent.

If over 100 Valley Stream South High School students are unvaccinated among a population of 1,225 students — according to the most recent education data — that means the student population has a 92 percent immunization rate.

South’s vaccination rates have fallen but not to a level that is immediate cause for alarm, argues Garellek, yet it should give the community pause over its broader health implications if the problem is allowed to worsen.

There is a worrying possibility that if vaccination rates at the school keep waning, now or in the future, noted Garellek, it can eventually compromise the mass immunity of the student population and give preventable diseases a foothold to spread.


Health risks of vaccine hesitancy

“Most of these diseases that (students get vaccinated for) have been eradicated or contained in the United States in large part due to vaccinations, and if vaccination numbers continue to decline, all that hard work that’s been done could be lost,” said Garellek who is concerned about the renewed rise of an old public health adversary — vaccine hesitancy.

Health experts suggest that vaccine hesitancy amplified by fearful resistance to the Covid-19 vaccine is driving up a record uptick in measles outbreaks — a disease nearly on the brink of eradication a few years ago.

Andrea Tobias, the practice manager at Valley Stream Pediatrics, says parents of students at her facility often come harboring misconceptions or misgivings about what is in a vaccine injection.

“Parents don’t understand the importance of the vaccine and lack knowledge of what they have to get at certain age groups,” said Tobias.

Tobias contends that parents are also worried about scientifically discounted side effects of vaccinations popularized among certain anti-vaccine circles.

“The other hurdle that we have is that a lot of families associate vaccines with autism or developmental delays despite no clinical research that warrants these concerns,” she said. “It’s just something that they hear on the Internet.”

“There are potential side effects with vaccines because it is a medication,” said Garellek. “Is it possible that a person may have an intense allergic reaction to a new vaccine that we didn’t anticipate? Yes, it’s possible, but it’s extremely rare.”

Garellek assured that the likelihood of experiencing side effects from a vaccine is significantly lower than the side effects from the virus or infection the vaccine aims to fight off.

“The long-term ramifications of not getting vaccinated can be pretty significant for yourself and vulnerable populations like children and the immunocompromised,” said Garallek. “We need to allow for open and honest discussions between the public and health care providers to address any misinformation.”

Additional reporting by Nora Toscano

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