- Associated Press - Thursday, October 1, 2015

HELENA, Mont. (AP) - School districts across Montana are giving students a bit more time to meet the state’s new vaccine requirements.

The law that took effect Thursday requires all students to be vaccinated against chickenpox and that students in seventh through 12th grades receive a whooping cough booster.

In Billings, Superintendent Terry Bouck supports the new requirements, but said the law didn’t take into account the time required between multiple vaccinations and the cost to parents.

The varicella, or chickenpox vaccine, involves two shots given three months apart for young children, or a month apart for those 13 and older.

Bouck says on Aug. 1 the district had 6,500 students who didn’t meet the new requirements. They’re down to about 2,000 and the district will continue to remind families of the requirements.

“We’re not going to punish students and parents because they were not able to secure the shots,” Bouck told The Billings Gazette. “We’ve been told that some clinics have run out of the immunizations or are running low.”

Linda Simon, the health services supervisor for Missoula County Public Schools, said Wednesday the district also is continuing its efforts to remind parents about the new requirements. The city-county health department plans to have extra staff available to give shots on Oct. 15-16, when the students don’t have school, Simon told KECI-TV.

Barb Ridgway, the staff and student services administrator for Helena Public Schools, said the district is making personal calls to parents, which she says has improved compliance.

“There’s no way we would exclude kids at this point,” Ridgway said.

Lewis and Clark Public Health has seen a surge of kids updating their shots, said public health nurse Mike Henderson.

The clinic gave 67 chickenpox shots on Monday and Wednesday -more than half of the chickenpox shots given in all of September - and ran out of the vaccine late Wednesday afternoon. They were able to get more overnight, so they’re ready for Friday’s clinic, he said.

Jim Murphy, the chief of the state Communicable Disease Control Bureau, said efforts to comply with the law should pay off with a decrease in the number of cases of whooping cough and chickenpox.

Montana has seen 107 cases of chickenpox so far this year, compared to 59 at this time last year, Murphy said. There have been 221 cases of whooping cough reported so far this year, which is down significantly from two years ago. The state had over 450 cases in 2014 and 637 in 2013.

“We’re usually No. 1 or No. 2 in the nation with our pertussis numbers,” Murphy said and Montana is the last state to require the chickenpox vaccine.

The law includes a conditional enrollment that allows some flexibility in getting students vaccines updated, Murphy said.

If a child is not fully up to date, the student is allowed to attend classes as long as they keep to a plan to get up to date, Murphy said.

Families can also opt out of the vaccines for medical or religious reasons.

Cost should not be a barrier, he said. Health insurance should cover the cost of the shots and the federal Vaccines for Children Program pays for vaccines for children without insurance.

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