By Joni Sweet
During the COVID-19 pandemic, many people have tried to safeguard their health by avoiding public areas and nonemergency medical visits.
Fearing exposure to the new coronavirus, parents across the country have canceled their children’s checkups over the last few months, causing vaccine rates to plummet.
Now, public health officials are focusing on getting kids caught up on vaccines.
As kids in many states head back to school, doctors warn that potential outbreaks of whooping cough, measles, the flu, and other vaccine-preventable diseases may overwhelm hospitals and impact public health at large this fall.
Why vaccine rates are falling
When the pandemic first hit the United States, the pediatricians’ offices saw visits from families drop by 50 to 70 percent.
The reason? Fear.
Results of a survey from Orlando Health, released on Aug. 12, found that two-thirds of parents are still nervous that taking their children to the doctor could expose them to the new coronavirus.
Delayed and canceled well checkup appointments have led to a significant drop in vaccination rates since the national emergency was declared on March 13, according to a report released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on May 15.
“When California had a shelter-in-place order, the vaccine rate dropped by well over 80 percent in kids compared to the year before,” said Dr. Jennifer Foreman, medical director of pediatrics at Valley Health Center Bascom at Santa Clara Valley Medical Center.
“While we’re seeing a big increase in the number of vaccines we’re giving now, we have in no way made up for the time when people weren’t coming in. Some people are still hesitant to come in because they’re afraid of catching COVID,” she added.
Risk of disease outbreaks
Falling vaccination rates threaten the herd immunity Americans have built against certain deadly diseases.
In fact, communities with immunization levels of 85 to 90 percent have experienced outbreaks of measles and rubella in the past, according to a 2015 report from the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Doctors warn that the recent drop in vaccination rates may lead to outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases as kids return to school and day care this fall.
“Herd immunity is something that keeps our kids safe, and if we can’t rely on it, measles and whooping cough can easily come back. They affect kids much more than COVID,” said Dr. Katherine Williamson, pediatrician at CHOC Children’s at Mission Hospital in Southern California and president of the Orange County chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics.
An outbreak of a vaccine-preventable disease could overwhelm hospitals at a time when they’re already stressed from COVID-19.
“If we’re not vaccinating and people get sick from a vaccine-preventable disease, we’re going to clog up the emergency rooms and see sick people getting sicker. We can’t ignore these basic things that are so preventable while in the midst of a pandemic,” urged Dr. Janet Mason, a family medicine physician who has the largest pediatric practice affiliated with the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.
Flu season, which typically starts in October, may be the biggest threat on the horizon for communities and hospitals if families continue to delay their children’s medical appointments, doctors warn.
“We’re all very concerned about the risk of having both the flu and COVID very active at the same time, which is a problem not just for at-risk adults, but for everyone,” Foreman said. “Every year, the flu stretches hospital capacity to its limit. It will be very important for everyone to get the flu vaccine.”
Don’t skip your child’s well checkup
If your child has fallen behind on immunizations, your local department of health may be able to help them get caught up quickly.
A number of states, including Maine, Michigan, and West Virginia, have scheduled immunization clinics for children in the coming weeks.
Vaccines aside, it’s still important to schedule your child’s well checkup — even if they’re not planning to go back to the classroom in person this fall.
“Routine physical exams are recommended annually for older kids, and even more frequently for younger ones, to make sure that nothing atypical is going on,” said Williamson, adding that her colleague recently discovered a heart murmur in an otherwise healthy 4-year-old during their appointment.
“It’s never just a straightforward head-to-toe check. We give families anticipatory guidance, and even parents who think they don’t have any questions end up asking 10 things when they see me,” she explained.
The well checkup is also an opportunity to address health concerns — like weight gain, mental health issues, and lack of physical activity — that might have popped up while kids were stuck at home over the last few months, added Foreman.
Worried about exposure to the new coronavirus? Talk to your physician about their prevention efforts. Many pediatricians require masks, conduct temperature checks, and coronavirus screenings, and have significantly reduced the number of people allowed in the practice at one time to help keep people safe.
“Parents are really scared about exposure at the pediatrician’s office, but really, it’s the safest place they can go,” said Mason. “Plus, it’s been a good emotional thing for kids to come in for their annual checkup and keep their routine.”