In June and again in August, Bob Snyder, who heads the Flagler Health Department, appeared before the Flagler County School board with Stephen Bickel, a physician, and other health professionals to make the case for expanding free and voluntary vaccine accessibility to students, particularly 6th graders who would benefit from a vaccine that prevents cervical, tonsil and other cancers.
It didn’t go well. Health officials presented reams of evidence showing the effectiveness and safety of the vaccine, which prevents HPV, a sexually transmitted disease. They showed it would be no different than other vaccines provided in schools, and with which the board members have no issue. But by the time the discussions ended, three of the five board members had all but decided against the expansion. But they’d asked the Health Department to provide more “outreach” and parental input and see how that goes.
The Health Department is doing just that, though it won’t make a third attempt to expand HPV vaccination.
“We decided that the Health Department needs to expand its services to those parents and their children who don’t have easy access to getting vaccines,” Snyder said. “We have a very low vaccination rate, second-lowest in the state in Flagler County.” That’s especially true among kindergarteners starting school. A low vaccination rate is dangerous: it lowers what’s called “herd immunity,” meaning that it can weaken the built up immunity of the community as a whole and make children more vulnerable to exposure to certain diseases.
“So we have this low vaccination rate, this high religious exemption rate, and we want to address it,” Snyder said. “That’s why starting in May we’re going to be offering after-hour vaccination opportunities to parents, and this will be all vaccinations–school-age to adolescent vaccinations, whatever.”
Starting on May 12 and every second Tuesday of the month after that, the Health Department at 301 Dr. Carter Boulevard in Bunnell will offer free vaccines of all sorts to all ages, from 3:30 to 5:30 p.m. Snyder said the hours may be extended if there is demand.
The department already provides free immunizations for children ages 1 through 18 on a walk-in basis every weekday morning from 8:30 to 10:30 a.m. “We’re going to extend it so that it’s after hours, to make it more convenient, to make it more accessible to parents to bring their children in,” Snyder said.
That’s not in place of, but in addition to, vaccine availability in the schools. The board members’ resistance to the HPV vaccine does not extend to other vaccines. The local health department and school district partner to bring vaccination clinics to schools so students (with parental consent) can be immunized during the school day. Some families have time to take off for pediatrician visits, and others come to the Flagler Health Department in Bunnell for the weekday morning walk-in vaccinations.
Despite these alternatives, many well-intentioned working parents struggle to meet their children’s immunization deadlines each school year. Therefore, hours are being expanded. The department’s Woman, Infants and Children (WIC) program will also be open during these hours to better accommodate working families.
Children will be able to receive any required or recommended immunizations at no cost through the federally funded Vaccines for Children program. Sixth grade students will be able to receive the Tdap shot (with parental consent) in April, during in-school clinics. Students can get other adolescent vaccines recommended by the CDC and the American Association of Pediatrics — Meningococcal, HPV and Influenza — at the health department. Visit this site for more information.
“We have a strong partnership with the school system,” Snyder said. “We do many things–flu administration, school health services, dental sealants. We did seek their approval upon parental consent to offer adolescent vaccines, and it did not take hold. So we’re moving on.” He specified that there will not be yet another ask. “We did our best through two different workshops, and I see no reason to go back and ask for the same thing twice. So we are moving on as a health department again to increase parental accessibility to vaccines on behalf of their children.”