This spring, a measles outbreak in southeast Michigan spread because of a high concentration of unvaccinated people. The outbreak was contained to that part of the state, but Grand Traverse County is still a high-risk area because of the large number of unvaccinated students.
After a state mandate required parents to learn the risks of not vaccinating their kids, immunizations increased across Michigan. But in Grand Traverse Couty, many are still saying 'no' to vaccines.
Meghan Flaska used to vaccine her kids without a thought.
The mother of four from Williamsburg dutifully followed her doctor’s instructions, wanting to keep her children safe and healthy. But when her third child suddenly developed severe asthma and allergies, her doctor said her son’s vaccines may be the cause.
"I didn’t blink and I just went 'okay,'" Flaska says. "It didn’t seem like a big deal, it seemed like this isn’t a good thing for your child."
She says for a while ensuring her son’s safety was as simple as signing a form at school.
But then in 2015, the state created a new rule. If parents want to skip their kid’s immunizations, they now have to sit down for an education session at their county health department before they're waived. During the sessions, a nurse explains why vaccines are an important protection for kids.
After the rule went into effect in Michigan, vaccinations went up by 25%. Michigan's Immunization Director Bob Swanson says they've seen the biggest change with kindergarten students.
"We are no longer the fourth highest in the country," he says. "We’re still high but not as bad. So obviously just from the counts, it’s working."
But in Grand Traverse County, the trend has been different. Immediately following the mandate, the number of vaccine waivers went down in the county like the rest of the state. But in the years since, that number has crept back up.
Now, Grand Traverse is the fourth highest county in the state for vaccine waivers.
Grand Traverse County Health Department Medical Director Michael Collins isn’t sure why so many parents don't vaccinate their kids.
"I think we maybe have a lot of free thinking people around here, which is good in many ways," he says. "But, in the case of those who choose to not have their children vaccinated, I personally think they’re making a wrong decision."
Healthcare providers widely agree that vaccines are effective and safe. They say there are few risks, like a sore arm or a mild fever.
But Meghan Flaska says she and other parents still don’t want to take any risk.
"It’s a one in a million chance for a vaccine reaction," she says. "I know a lot of people that play the lottery for a one and a 176 million chance, and they don’t think anything of it. I’m not taking those chances with my child."
Flaska says the education sessions haven’t shown her any information she didn’t already know, and she says the nurses were often combative. Flaska says they also refused to answer her questions about the waiver’s language.
"The nurses couldn’t answer the questions I was asking," she says. "I think a lot of us would feel like this is a more open process if the education went both ways."
Michael Collins says the Grand Traverse County Health Department is much more focused on telling parents about the risks of not vaccinating. Currently, in a handful of schools in the county the waiver rate is at least 15%. He says if a student gets the measles virus, the county forces all non-immunized students to leave school.
"We realize the chances of our having a real outbreak in our county are increased," Collins says. "We think we know what to do, and we’ll be ready to do it, but it won’t be popular."
This story was featured in Points North. You can listen to the full episode here.