Dozens of Washington state foster parents say they’ll give up their licenses to care for kids from birth to age 2 rather than get flu shots mandated by a new regulation.
Some foster parents said they object to the influenza vaccine because they believe it is “experimental” and poses potential side effects. Others said they simply don’t like being told to inoculate themselves and their biological kids, and they worry that the regulation will worsen a growing shortage of foster families.
“We will not get the flu shot. We choose not to,” said Glory Tichy, 35, a Tacoma mother of three biological kids and a 2-year-old foster daughter. “Right now our license has been amended and we cannot take any children under 2. I’m desperately hoping and praying that it gets overturned or they think twice about it.”
But officials with the state Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) said they’re sticking with the new administrative rule, WAC 388-148, which took effect Jan. 11, because medical experts advise that the shots are safe, effective and in the best interests of the youngest children in the state’s care.
“We selected this age group because the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the state Department of Health have indicated these are the children who are most vulnerable to illness,” Mindy Chambers, a DSHS spokeswoman, said in a statement.
Washington appears to be the only state that requires flu shots for foster families, according to the National Foster Parent Association. But the controversy has surfaced amid national concerns that anti-vaccination sentiments have fueled an outbreak of measles that started at Disneyland in Orange County, Calif., and has spread to at least 102 people in 14 states, with most cases linked to the theme park.
Under the new rule, DSHS will not license foster families to serve children younger than age 2 without proof of pertussis and influenza vaccinations for everyone living in the home. The pertussis requirement was implemented in May 2012, in response to an epidemic of whooping cough in Washington state.
Foster children are required to be immunized according to federal guidelines, which include flu shots, DSHS officials said.
The pertussis requirement drew little response, in sharp contrast to current protests against the flu vaccine. In Yakima County, at least three dozen of some 490 licensed foster parents — about 7 percent — already have asked to have their licenses changed in order to avoid the flu shots, Chambers said.
It’s not yet clear how many foster parents will request license changes statewide. DSHS officials said they’re contacting the more than 4,800 foster families who care for some 8,500 children, including about 1,000 younger than age 2. The agency expects to have a full count by late February, Chambers said.
The vast majority of foster parents likely will abide by the rule, said Kathy Spears, another DSHS spokeswoman. “We haven’t heard of people lining up on our doorsteps ready to relinquish their foster parent licenses because of the immunization protocol,” Spears said in an email.
Opposition is heated, however, from people like Crystal Farnsworth Deline, 50, of Cle Elum, who has four adult biological children, four adopted special-needs children and a 15-year-old foster child in the process of adoption. She’d be happy to take the very youngest kids, except for the new flu-shot requirement.
“The flu vaccine seems experimental to me,” said Deline. “It doesn’t feel like a safe vaccine.”
Her concerns are echoed by Ann Marie Henninger, 47, a registered nurse in Sequim, who has been a foster parent for seven years and is currently licensed for children from birth to age 6.
“The vaccine itself has risks and is no guarantee that one will not come down with the illness,” she wrote, adding: “This decision is not evidence-based and will result in the loss of countless foster families who will raise their age limit of dependent children accepted rather than submit to the government mandate that they vaccinate their families against their will and better judgment.”
She said that this year’s flu vaccine is “a failure” because it was a poor match for the circulating strains of flu virus, with an efficacy of only about 23 percent, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Flu- vaccine effectiveness can range from as low as 10 percent to as much as 60 percent, CDC figures show.
Health officials, however, said there’s no question that the flu vaccine is safe and, even in bad years, offers more protection against illness, hospitalization and death than skipping the shot.
“The (DSHS) recommendation is well-grounded in medical logic, and there are many good studies showing influenza vaccine is safe both in children and adults,” said Dr. Jeff Duchin, interim health officer for Public Health — Seattle & King County.
“People are entitled to their opinions, but they’re not entitled to change facts,” he added. “They have beliefs that are not substantiated in fact or in science.”
The CDC has for years recommended that everyone older than 6 months get flu shots. Children from birth to age 2 are especially vulnerable to infection, the CDC says. DSHS officials said the agency was advised to require flu shots for all children in state foster care but decided to limit it to just the most at-risk children.
There can be side effects to flu shots, CDC officials acknowledge. They are mostly limited to soreness, redness or swelling at the injection site or other mild problems. Moderate and serious problems are very rare, the agency said.
The CDC estimated that use of the 2013-2014 flu vaccine prevented 7.2 million illnesses and 90,000 hospitalizations associated with influenza. Flu kills between 3,300 and nearly 49,000 people annually, depending on the year, federal figures show. Last year, 109 children died from flu infections; so far this year, the total is 61, the CDC said.
“We should do whatever we can to protect these young kids, even if we can’t protect them 100 percent,” Duchin said. “It’s worth it.”
The new rule rankles foster parents like Kori Beringer, 40, of Arlington, who has adopted five former foster children ages 1, 2, 3, 6 and 8 but has room for two more kids.
“What makes me sad now is unless we get everybody vaccinated, they will not place more children in our home,” she said. “My problem with the flu shot is not the flu shot. My problem is that I need, in my home, the right to make medical choices for myself, my husband and my children.”
Other foster parents were surprised by the sudden requirement and felt they had no chance to express their views, said Beth Canfield, co-president of FPAWS, the Foster Parents Association of Washington. They also point out that other adults who come in contact with foster children — social workers and transportation providers, for example — aren’t mandated to get the shots. Canfield questions the wisdom of imposing such a regulation when the numbers of willing foster parents are dwindling.
“This is the worst shortage I’ve seen in 32 years of being a foster parent,” she said, noting that the state held steady at 6,000 foster families for years, far higher than the 4,800 now licensed. “We already have kids staying in hotels and in 24-hour day care because we don’t have enough families.”
Foster parents have reached out to state lawmakers, asking for help in overturning the new rule. Rep. Mark Hargrove, R-Covington, said he convened a meeting last week with foster parents and DSHS representatives, where the idea of suspending the flu rule was raised. An aide for Rep. Matt Shea, R-Spokane Valley, said Shea is considering action on the issue.
Meanwhile, DSHS officials said they won’t remove children younger than 2 from homes that refuse flu shots, but they won’t authorize new placements in such homes. If the agency starts losing families for those children, DSHS will push for greater recruitment in that age range, Spears said.
“The department is concerned about any loss of homes, but we have to make tough decisions to safeguard the health and well-being of children entrusted to our care,” she added.