The state on Friday released the names of three schools and a day care center where chickenpox outbreaks occurred during the 2014-15 school year, the result of a court settlement between the Portland Press Herald and the Department of Health and Human Services.
The newspaper sued DHHS in Cumberland County Superior Court in July, after the agency refused to release records held by one of its divisions, the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, citing patient privacy.
On Friday, the Maine Attorney General’s Office handed over the records.
“The state attorney general’s office agreed with us that this was, in fact, a public record. We wanted to set a precedent that this data ought to be provided,” said Sigmund Schutz, the Press Herald’s attorney.
The newspaper sought the records so the public would know where an infectious disease outbreak has occurred. Although schools send letters home to parents after an outbreak, no notice is given to people who are childless or if their children are not in school. For immune-compromised patients who are susceptible to infectious diseases – such as people who have leukemia – knowing where an outbreak has happened can be important because the vulnerable individual can then avoid places where the disease had spread.
Schutz said simply disclosing where outbreaks have occurred would not identify patients, as the DHHS had asserted.
“We never at the beginning, middle or end of this ever asked for the names of anyone who had become sick,” Schutz said.
The newspaper requested the school names and numbers of cases after the Center for Disease Control and Prevention reported in late May that Maine had four chickenpox outbreaks during the 2014-15 school year – the highest number since the chickenpox vaccine became mandatory for school attendance in 2003.
An outbreak is defined as three or more cases occurring in one school or day care facility.
The schools that had the outbreaks were: SeaCoast Waldorf School, a private school in Eliot, with nine cases; Lisbon Community School in Lisbon, five cases; and Central High School in Corinth, five cases. Also, The Children’s Center day care in Portland reported four cases.
Maine reported a total of 84 cases in the 2014-15 school year, nearly double the number during the 2013-14 school year. Of those 84 cases, 57 affected unvaccinated or undervaccinated children, according to data from the CDC. Maine’s rate of chickenpox outbreaks is triple the national average, according to Maine and federal CDC reports.
Schutz said the Press Herald also sought the information as a further check on how the state’s public health policies are working to protect people from infectious diseases. Earlier this year, the Maine CDC released school-by-school vaccination opt-out rates at the request of the Press Herald, the first time they had provided such detailed data on where parents were forgoing immunizations.
Maine has one of the highest kindergarten opt-out rates in the country, according to the U.S. CDC, fifth-highest in 2013-14 and eighth-highest in 2014-15. Some parents are forgoing vaccines for their children because they mistakenly believe that vaccines are dangerous or are linked to autism. Numerous studies have proven the safety and effectiveness of vaccines in preventing infectious diseases, such as measles, polio, chicken pox and pertussis.
Joe Lawlor can be contacted at 791-6376 or at: [email protected] Twitter: @joelawlorph