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Ochsner Lafayette General Medical Assistant Jaquala Hebert, left, administers the Pfizer Vaccine to Carter Ardoin, 7, while Medical assistant Marquita Baytop, right, holds his hand along with his mother Kerri, back, while his brother Collin,10, watches at the Domingue Center on Friday, November 5, 2021 in Lafayette, La..

Some Louisiana parents have received letters from schools that seem to suggest COVID vaccines are mandatory for their kids, prompting an outcry from anti-vaccination political groups.

But schools say it's just a problem with the formatting of reports generated by the state Department of Health's immunization database. They are emphasizing the vaccine is not required — one district went so far as to black out out each letter by hand to clear up the confusion

Aly Neel, spokesperson for LDH, said the department is working to address the issue. 

Schools routinely send out letters to make sure students get vaccines that have been required for years — like the one for measles, mumps and rubella.

The LDH immunization database generates reports that go directly to school nurses so they can see which vaccinations students at their campuses have not received, Neel said. Reports show the names of different vaccines and several columns that list the dose, recommended date, minimum valid date and status.

“These reports are only meant to be visible to school nurses and they do not go to students' homes; rather school nurses use these reports to draft letters or other forms of communication notifying parents that their child is missing a school vaccine,” Neel said.

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She added that the COVID vaccine is included in the reports because some schools wanted to track vaccination status among the student body. In the database, it shows up as a recommended vaccine, not a required one.

However, some school districts have sent their routine letter informing parents which vaccines are mandatory, with the COVID vaccine included in the attached report of incomplete immunizations.

There's another complication, Neel said: outdated information from a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention program, which helps fill out LDH's system. That makes the COVID vaccine appear "past due" for some students, which could suggest it is required.

“Our immunization team is aware of the issue and has requested new action report options be created to ensure clarity,” Neel said. “LDH has made LDOE aware in case they receive questions from schools or the public, and we will do outreach to all school nurses once the new action report options are available to ensure they understand how to run them.”

The Livingston Parish public school system recently sent out an annual reminder to families of 16-year-old students for the meningitis booster shot that is required for attendance at many colleges and the U.S. military. For each of the 572 letters, staff manually redacted the part of the letter that could cause confusion about COVID vaccinations, spokeswoman Delia Taylor said.

But at least one redaction got missed: A student at one Denham Springs-area school got one of the reports, Taylor said.

That caught the eye of Health Freedom Louisiana, a group that has opposed many Louisiana vaccination policies. 

The organization sent a letter co-signed by more than 15 similar groups on Nov. 4, the day after LDH approved the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for children ages 5-11, citing three examples of the report error in Union, Caddo and Livingston parishes.

"COVID-19 vaccinations are NOT required for school attendance in Louisiana K-12 schools, yet many school districts have sent home communication to parents that COVID-19 vaccination is either required or is due," wrote Jill Hines, co-director of Health Freedom Louisiana. "This is an error that can have significant consequences." 

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A letter from leaders with the anti-vaccination group Health Freedom Louisiana, sent Nov. 4.

Louisiana for Medical Freedom, Louisiana Save Our Schools and the Greater New Orleans Tea Party are among the groups undersigned. 

Livingston Parish Public Schools Superintendent Joe Murphy commented on the misunderstanding at the most recent school board meeting.

"There seems to be some confusion as to whether or not we're required to — there's not any confusion on my part — whether or not we're required to vaccinate children," Murphy said toward the end of the meeting.

"I will state once again, which we've stated since we began all this with the pandemic: Livingston Parish Public Schools has no intention of vaccinating any children on our campuses because we feel like that decision is best left in the hands of the parents and their private medical provider," he said.

Taylor said they had heard "murmurings" about the issue, and sought to set the record straight. The district even contacted the family who had received the unaltered report to let them know what happened.

“The false narrative gains way more traction than the truth," Taylor said. "Those perpetuating that false narrative never check up. They keep going with it.”

Kristy Fine, Union Parish Schools Superintendent, said she learned about the issue about three weeks ago. A school nurse in the district had actually been writing "optional" out to the side of the generic letters that had been in circulation for years, so parents would know the vaccine was available but not required.

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As was the case in Livingston, the nurse missed one of the letters — an understandable mistake when editing by hand, Fine said. The district is changing their letters and making a notation to underscore that the COVID vaccination is being offered for certain age groups but is not a requirement. 

Many schools have seen this as a non-issue and have found "easy-enough work-arounds," Neel said.

Some schools have been removing the COVID vaccine from the list of missing vaccinations and then printing the letters, while others, like those in Livingston Parish schools have manually removed the due dates.

"To stress, at this time, the COVID-19 vaccine is not mandatory for students in K-12 settings, but it is strongly recommended," Neel said. "Having your child vaccinated against the virus will help prevent them from getting severe COVID-19 disease and help protect others, including other children and more vulnerable family members."

Eighteen children in Louisiana under the age of 18 have died of COVID-19 since the beginning of the pandemic.

She added: “I’m not aware of any children that have gotten the COVID-19 vaccine as a result of some sort of confusion in this letter." 

Anyone seeking reliable information about the COVID vaccine can contact their healthcare provider, call 211, or call the LDH COVID-19 Vaccine Hotline at 1-855-453-0774.


Email Jacqueline DeRobertis at jderobertis@theadvocate.com

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