Pinellas County health officials are asking parents at a Clearwater elementary school to keep any unvaccinated students home for three weeks after an outbreak of chicken pox there.
Eight children have come down with the illness at Plumb Elementary, marking another in a string of flareups that continue to frustrate public health officials nationally as they push the importance childhood vaccinations in the face of resistance from some parents.
Students at Plumb Elementary who have not had the chicken pox vaccine will need to stay home for 21 days — the time it takes for symptoms to begin showing, Pinellas County School District spokeswoman Lisa Wolf said Tuesday. Children who have been vaccinated can continue coming to school.
The action affects 18 children at the 770-student school at 1920 Lakeview Road, Wolf said. At least one of the eight sick children came down with the illness despite having been vaccinated, she said.
She said the district has not seen a situation like this in several years and is following the Health Department's recommendations.
Chicken pox, also known as varicella, is an acute, highly infectious disease that causes rashes and crusty lesions. People who are not vaccinated against the virus are also at risk of developing a high fever or pneumonia.
The Health Department says it is investigating the cluster of infections at Plumb, as well as potential issues for the wider population.
"Because varicella is transmitted person-to-person or via contact with the fluid in the lesions, there's the possibility that others could be exposed at locations where they would have had close contact with those who are contagious," said Maggie Hall, spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Health in Pinellas County.
The chicken pox vaccine is required for all children who enroll in Florida public schools. It is included in the MMRV vaccine, which is administered in two doses and also protects against measles, mumps and rubella.
Students can be exempted for medical reasons or, according to the Florida Department of Health, "if immunizations are in conflict with the religious tenets and practices of the child's parent or guardian."
Of the students affected at Plumb Elementary, one of the exemptions was for a medical reason; the others were for religious reasons, Wolf said.
The antivaccination movement seen in pockets of the country has been fueled by parents who believe there is a link between vaccines and autism, though no such link has been proven, or who see more harm than good resulting from having their children vaccinated.
The issue often stirs passion and fear when it arises — be it at Disneyland, where a measles outbreak began and spread across California last year, or the Sept. 16 Republican presidential debate, where candidate Donald J. Trump used an anecdote about one of his employees to say he believed the link between vaccines and autism.
As for the Plumb Elementary children who will have to stay home, "it's something that we're going to work with these families on," Wolf said. "We will support the academic needs (of) affected children."
Children who receive their first dose of the chicken pox vaccine may return to school immediately, according to a letter sent home Monday by the county Health Department to families with unvaccinated children. The letter cites a state statute where the Health Department is granted authority to exclude unvaccinated children.
Wolf said unvaccinated children who are dropped off at school will be held in isolation and their parents will be informed to pick the child up. Parents who come to the school with their unvaccinated child will be turned away and reminded that their child cannot be in a classroom setting.
"We haven't seen this situation happen," at Plumb or elsewhere, Wolf said. "We're just hoping that parents will cooperate with us and the Department of Health."
Another letter was sent home to all Plumb Elementary families on Thursday, recommending that parents consult with their child's pediatrician to verify immunization status and determine if their child needs postexposure treatment.
The Pinellas Health Department reported 38 cases of chicken pox last year. A total of 743 cases were reported statewide.
Contact Colleen Wright at [email protected] or (727) 893-8643. Follow @colleen_wright.