Marysville High School has a chickenpox outbreak, and antivaxers don’t want their children kept home

I was out a bit late last night (well, 9 PM is late for a weeknight), thanks to a work event, but I still wanted to take a little time mention a little tidbit I saw in a local Michigan newspaper. The story takes place in Marysville, MI, a small town on St. Clair River just south of Port Huron. What I somehow missed in the local news last week was that Marysville High School asked the parents of unvaccinated kids to stay home last week because of an outbreak of chickenpox. Last week, the St. Clair County Health Department issued letters to 37 families whom they identified as higher risk (i.e., unvaccinated), asking them to have their student vaccinated or have the student remain at home:

The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services and St. Clair County Health Department have identified a chickenpox (varicella) outbreak at Marysville High School. Marysville school district officials have been working closely with the Health Department to identify approximately 37 susceptible, unvaccinated students. Letters from the Health Department were given to the district to help with parent notification.

In accordance with Michigan Public Health Code, exposed susceptible students who cannot provide documentation of vaccination or immunity history will be excluded from attending school, work or extracurricular activities until 21 days after the last identified case (date to be determined and dependent on cases). Immunity is defined as:

  • Documentation of two valid doses of any appropriate live varicella vaccine at or after 12 months of age
  • Lab evidence of immunity or confirmation of the disease

Students will be re-admitted to school upon getting vaccinated or providing the Health Department with acceptable documentation of immunity. If this is the student’s first varicella vaccine dose, the student may be conditionally re-admitted back to school; if it is the student’s second dose they will be immediately readmitted after vaccination.

And:

Wightman said the students who cannot attend classes will receive in-home services, with staff members checking in on them and ensuring they receive and complete schoolwork.

The letter further noted that chickenpox is a vaccine-preventable disease that spreads through the air via aerosol droplets when an infected person coughs, sneezes, or talks and that it can also be spread by touching or breathing virus that comes from chickenpox blisters. It also warned parents that it can take 10-21 days after exposure to develop symptoms, which is why unvaccinated students are susceptible, you know, standard-issue facts about the disease. The health department also pointed out that chickenpox can sometimes cause serious problems, especially in vulnerable populations and the immunosuppressed.

A news story about the outbreak and letter notes:

The district has been working with the St. Clair County Health Department to identify about 37 students who do not have documented immunity and cannot return to school until they can prove immunity, according to a news release by the St. Clair County Health Department.

The high school currently has 896 students, so the 37 affected students constitute about 4 percent of the school’s population. Marysville Schools Superintendent Shawn Wightman said it is difficult for students to be pulled out of class at the beginning of a school year — when everyone is establishing routines and extra curricular activities are getting up and running.

Not surprisingly, the local antivaxers are not happy about the county’s and school’s decision to pull these students from school. I definitely feel for these kids, too, as this week is homecoming week at Marysville High School, and these students have already missed some of the festivities. It’s not their fault, either. It’s the fault of their parents, who didn’t vaccinate them, for whatever reason they gave for a “personal belief exemption.”

It also brings up a not uncommon antivaccine argument (which, to be fair, is not being made—yet—by antivaxers in Marysville but is a frequent favorite whenever issues like outbreaks in schools come up), which is that quarantines are effective. In other words, if there’s an outbreak, it could be stopped with quarantines. Of course, this claim neglects to consider the fact that a far superior way of stopping—or better yet, preventing—outbreaks is by vaccinating. It also reveals how everything is always about the parents, the parents’ “rights,” the parents’ “freedom,” more than anything else. You might think that parents of an unvaccinated child would be happy to cooperate with health authorities and just keep their child home from school until “all clear” sign is given by health authorities. You might think wrong. Of course, antivaxers won’t do that. They’re very cavalier about wanting to quarantine any victim of a vaccine-preventable disease, but don’t you dare try to ask them to do anything to help to allow the spread of disease. That would be an unconscionable assault on the rights of their precious unvaccinated child!

Unfortunately, the editor of the local newspaper, the Times-Herald, made the astonishingly bad decision to publish an op-ed by one of the mother of one of the 37 students, entitled Parent: School wrong to remove unvaccinated students. The mother’s name is Stacy DeShon, and she’s listed as the spokesperson for the parents of children barred from attending school until the outbreak clears. She is quite unhappy, too:

Last week, Marysville High School forcibly removed over 37 students from the high school due to an alleged outbreak of chicken pox, which consisted of two students.

The school took these extreme measures based on a recommendation from the St. Clair County Health Department, discriminating against students who could not prove immunity status based on health department regulations. By doing so, they showed total disregard for the emotional welfare or physical safety of the students who were forced to leave school grounds, and not being able to return for two weeks.

I’m guessing that no actual physical force was involved here, but that doesn’t stop Ms. DeShon from trying to make the story as dramatic as possible, complete with a narrative clearly intended to evoke images of jack-booted thugs breaking into classes and dragging her precious child and other unvaccinated children out of class, traumatizing them with threats of force and humiliation. Of course, Ms. DeShon happens to be a lawyer; so perhaps it’s to be expected, although she does specialize in estate planning, which is generally not an area of law requiring hyperbole of language.

A little Googling soon revealed that she is an advocate for Michigan for Vaccine Choice—surprise! surprise!—a group that I’ve written about several times before, the most memorable (I think) being the time I described how the group had shepherded around antivaccine celebrity Del Bigtree in a tour to meet various antivaccine-friendly or -sympathetic state legislators in the run-up to the 2016 election. He also was the main attraction at a fundraiser for Michigan Vaccine Freedom PAC, where, in a fit of typical Bigtree histrionic hyperbole, he gave a speech likening antivaxers to the “Founding Fathers” fighting for liberty against tyranny. (You know, standard issue Bigtree stuff.) So if Stacy DeShon is a member of or advocate for Michigan for Vaccine Choice, you know she’s not just vaccine hesitant. She’s hard core antivaccine. Of course her writing a letter like this shows it.

As for the bit about the outbreak being only two students, there is an explanation in a news story:

So far, there are two confirmed chickenpox cases, Wightman said. St. Clair County Health Department Medical Health Officer Dr. Annette Mercatante said that a minimum of two cases are what constitutes an outbreak, which was reduced from a minimum of five cases in years past.

“The whole purpose of this is so the disease doesn’t spread,” Mercatante said. “The point of starting early is to clamp down on it.”

Personally, I’ll take the definition of an outbreak as laid down by public health professionals over the incredulity of an antivaccine activist over that definition.

Let’s look at what DeShon claims Marysville High School did:

Parents were not asked to keep children home, as publicly stated by the superintendent for Marysville School District. This group of students were pulled from class on Tuesday and put in a room and shamed for not being up to date on their vaccinations. The students were then put outside on the street. They were not allowed to call for rides or get their things, and those that rode a bus home were left sitting outside with nowhere to go. The next day a big group was again forcefully sent home.

The Marysville School District released the private health, educational, and personal records of these students to the health department without parental consent. This is a clear violation of federal law.

I find this passage rather interesting. Notice how she doesn’t mention the letter. That makes me wonder: Did these parents get the letter and then ignore it? It rather sounds that way, reading between the lines, but I have no way of knowing for sure. If the school was too heavy-handed, then that was a mistake, but I’m not going to take the word of an antivaccine activist (which DeShon sure gives me the impression of being from her writing) that that’s how events went down without corroboration.

As for the bit about federal law supposedly being violated, it’s a specious claim that Michigan-based antivaxers like to make. The federal law that they cite doesn’t cover the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHSS) or county health departments. In any case, if Ms. DeShon so strongly believes that the law was broken, I encourage her to file suit. I rather suspect that she would be wasting her money, but, hey, I’m not a lawyer and she is. Still, if this sort of thing really is illegal under federal law, why hasn’t Michigan for Vaccine Choice or another antivaccine organization managed to get a ruling against it in court?

None of this stops Ms. DeShon:

According to Michigan state law, there are three ways to provide immunity to a school. One, is a vaccination record. Two, is a titers blood test that shows immunity. Three, is an affidavit signed by a parent, guardian, or doctor that states the child has had the chicken pox. Despite the fact that at least one parent submitted an affidavit, the school has admitted they will not follow state law, but instead continue based on what the heath department recommends.

As well a school should. Again, if Ms. DeShon truly thinks the school district and/or county health department broke the law, let’s see the relevant statute and the relevant MDHSS regulations.

Finally:

Homecoming events are happening all week long. The school has barred any Marysville student who cannot provide immunity status from attending these week long events including the homecoming parade and the homecoming dance. This group of banned students consists of band members, cheerleaders, and football players. HOWEVER, the school is allowing students from other school districts to attend without checking immunity or vaccination status of the visiting student.

Personally, I’d say that Ms. DeShon has a point here, but not in the way she thinks. Her argument is a good argument not of letting her child and the 36 other unvaccinated students back into school; it’s an argument for checking the vaccination status of the other students attending, presumably students from the school whose football team will be playing Marysville this weekend. I’m guessing this isn’t being done because it’s impractical.

Dr. Shawn Wightman, Superintendent of Marysville Public Schools, responded yesterday to Ms. DeShon’s op-ed:

This communication is in response to a number of misleading and grossly exaggerated statements that have been made by a local community member involving an unfortunate chickenpox outbreak at Marysville High School.

In summary, on Thursday, September 26, 2019, the St. Clair County Health Department identified an outbreak of the varicella-zoster virus (chickenpox) at Marysville High School. Based on current records, 37 students were identified as being susceptible to this highly contagious disease. Consequently, in accordance with Michigan Public Health Code (MCL 333.1101/Rule 175), all exposed susceptible students were discreetly brought down to the school’s office and respectfully informed of the situation.

A letter, drafted by the St. Clair County Health Department, was also provided. Parents or legal guardians of these students were called by school staff, informed of the circumstances, and advised to make arrangements to have their child(ren) picked up from the building as soon as possible.

All of the above was done at the direction of the St. Clair County Health Department and for the safety of all our students, staff and visitors to Marysville High School. It was also done in a professional, respectful and caring way.

Yeah, this sounds about right and is rather how I expected that Marysville High School staff would have carried out the school district’s and county health department’s decision.

At the end of her op-ed, Ms. DeShon called on all parents of children at Marysville High School to keep their children home for the day and protest this offense against freedom (or something). What was the result? As is the case with nearly all antivaccine protests, the number of protestors was…unimpressive:

Antivaxers protesting Marysville High School.

I can’t conclude without mentioning two more things. First, the Times-Herald screwed up, big time, by publishing Stacy DeShon’s op-ed. Sure, the paper printed a letter by a doctor supporting the school’s action and emphasizing the importance of vaccination and one by the St. Clair County Medical Society doing the same. There was no reason to publish Ms. DeShon’s article other than for false balance, which is something that I had thought newspapers had gotten over (mostly) when it comes to the antivaccine movement. All I can do here is to say to the editor of the newspaper: For shame!

The last thing I want to mention before I conclude is that state law currently gives the the St. Clair County Health Department and the Marysville School District the authority to keep unvaccinated students out of school in the event of an outbreak. This power is an essential one that allows public health authorities to act early and limit the spread of outbreaks. It’s also a power that the Michigan State GOP tried to limit or eliminate on more than one occasion when it proposed bills to reverse an MDHSS policy that requires parents seeking a personal belief exemption to school vaccine mandates to go to their county health department for an educational program and to use a standardized state form. Part of those same bills were provisions that would have limited the power of county health authorities and school districts to do just what the St. Clair County Health Department and the Marysville School District did in response to this chickenpox outbreak. Their actions protected the unvaccinated and vaccinated alike. That power to protect is what Stacy DeShon and the other parents of unvaccinated students are protesting in the name of “parental rights.”