The New York Times - November 18, 2007
Maryland Parents Told to Have Children Immunized
- By SARAH ABRUZZESE
UPPER MARLBORO, Md., Nov. 17 — Hundreds of parents, who had been warned that they might face fines and jail time unless they had their children immunized, brought their children to a courthouse here Saturday for the vaccinations.
The families appeared at the request of Judge C. Philip Nichols Jr. of Prince George’s County Circuit Court, who is in charge of juvenile issues. Judge Nichols had sent letters this week to the homes of more than 800 households with children in public schools, strongly recommending that the children be immunized Saturday at the courthouse, where health department workers had set up tables to process paperwork and give shots, or that parents prove that the children had already been immunized in accordance with state law.
This year, the State of Maryland added the requirement that children have shots for hepatitis B and chickenpox in addition to other vaccinations including polio, mumps and measles.
That letter came on the heels of another sent on Nov. 1, by the Prince George’s County state’s attorney, Glenn F. Ivey, informing parents that their children would be withdrawn from school until the school received proof of vaccination. The letter also informed parents that if their children were not attending school, they might be subject to criminal charges with a maximum penalty of 10 days in jail and a fine of $50 per day of absence.
“We want to get the kids back in school, not put the parents in jail,” Mr. Ivey said. He added that exemptions were allowed on medical and religious grounds.
Still, the letters upset many parents who showed up.
Some said they had already had their children immunized and had sent that information to the school. One such parent, Jerome Lofton of Fort Washington, arrived early with his family and stood in the cold amid television cameras and photographers until officers allowed people to enter the building, through metal detectors.
Mr. Lofton, who said his son had been immunized, was infuriated. “We shouldn’t have had to come here,” he said as he left the building after proving to health care workers that his son had all of his shots.
As shots were administered in the courthouse, some children cried, one so loudly that an officer and his dog came over to investigate.
For others, though, the trip to the courthouse was not so bad.
T’asia Mayweather, 10, who received five vaccinations, smiled bravely until the last shot, when she gave a small yelp.
Leaving the building with her mother, Tara Matthews, and stepfather, Richard Wilkens, she and her family expressed relief that the vaccinations were taken care of. “I’m glad it is over with,” Mr. Wilkens said.
The Prince George’s County Public School System is the 18th-largest in the nation, with 132,000 students. The number of students affected by the vaccination push were a small percentage, said John White, a schools spokesman.
The county winnowed the number of children needing documentation to 1,111 as of Thursday, from 2,643 in October. By the end of Saturday officials believe that number was 939, with 101 children receiving shots and 71 having their records updated.
If parents do not comply, schools will send a notice to the court, Mr. White said.
Judge Nichols said he was pleased with the turnout. “I appreciate we’re out on a limb a little bit but it’s working really well,” he said.
Outside the courthouse, demonstrators gathered.
Among them was Charles Frohman, who represented the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons, a group opposing mandated vaccinations. Mr. Frohman said the county should have done more to make parents aware of their options. “Reports are that very few folks are really hearing about exemptions,” he said.
Later in the day, after the line had diminished, Remy Durham brought her son, Lamonte Hyter, 18, to have his chickenpox vaccination. Mr. Hyter had spent six days out of school and two doing make-up work after the county said his health records were lacking proof that he had had chickenpox when he was younger.
“We weren’t upset. We knew he needed to have the shot,” Ms. Durham said before talking with health care workers. “And we didn’t want him or anyone else infecting other people.”
Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company