For pediatricians’ offices, summer traditionally marks the busy season for vaccinations, since many children require shots before they’re allowed back in school each fall.
This year, however, the logistics of ensuring all kids are up to date on their vaccines will prove even more difficult because of the coronavirus, health care officials said.
That’s causing concern that outbreaks of certain diseases – such as measles or whooping cough – might occur in coming months.
The rates of children vaccinated plummeted nationwide during the initial wave of COVID-19 cases, when doctors’ offices closed for most well-child visits and parents hesitated to bring their children in for non-emergency concerns during stay-at-home orders.
“To try to minimize the spread of COVID-19, we have asked people to social distance. An unintended consequence of social distancing has been parents avoiding the doctor’s office, even for routine medical care," said Dr. Robert Frenck, professor of pediatrics for the Division of Infectious Diseases at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center. "This has resulted in over a 50% decrease in administration of measles containing vaccines. If this were to continue, it is only a matter of time before we have widespread outbreaks of measles, as well as other vaccine preventable infections.”
Official data on immunization rates in the Cincinnati area were not available at the time of the story. However, Frenck said, "based on national numbers it is likely we have a similar trend in Cincinnati."
An estimated 16,000 fewer children were vaccinated across Columbus’ Nationwide Children’s Hospital primary care network during the months of March and April compared with the year before, said Dr. Sara Bode, director of the hospital’s school health programs.
“There are still families who are hesitant to come back in,” Bode said. “It’s going to be really tough for us to make up the gap, especially as new kids age into vaccines. We’re going to have to get creative to get kids caught up.”
Vaccines are top of mind for any pediatric provider right now, Bode stressed, and it should be for parents, too.
“One of our concerns is are we susceptible to outbreaks,” Bode continued. “The two measles vaccines you receive at 1 and 4. With kids starting kindergarten, preschool, will we have a certain percentage missing one? That’s not herd immunity anymore.”
Frenck said parents should be vigilant with children's hand-washing. But that doesn't mean they can avoid vaccinations for their kids.
“After handwashing, vaccines are the most important interventions that we do in pediatrics," Frenck said. "Due to vaccines, in areas with high vaccination rates, infections that use to be serious and common place now almost never occur. However, if our vaccine rates slip, these infections will come roaring back."
The American Academy of Pediatrics has put out similar statements urging parents to not let vaccination schedules slip despite COVID-19, citing a report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on the effect the pandemic has had on vaccine rates.
From mid-March to mid-April, the Vaccines for Children program, which provides federally purchased vaccines to 50% of children in the United States, ordered 2.5 million fewer doses of all routine, non-influenza vaccines and 250,000 fewer doses of measles-containing vaccines compared to the same period in 2019.
A survey of 1,000 independent pediatricians nationwide by PCC, a pediatric electronic health records company, that surveyed 1,000 independent pediatricians nationwide, found doses of measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) shots administered fell by 50% during a week in April when compared to a week in February. Diphtheria and whooping cough immunizations dropped 42% while the number of children getting the human papillomavirus vaccine fell by 73%.
Rates have been similar across Ohio, according to the state’s Immunization Registry.
Pediatric vaccines dropped more than 45% when comparing April 2019 to April 2020. There was almost a 20% decrease for the month of March.
If parents have concerns, Dr. Autumn M. O’Brien of Columbus’ Olentangy Pediatrics, suggests asking the physician about what changes the office has implemented to keep them and their children safe from COVID-19.
“I think we always forget that even though the pandemic is here, we still see measles, we still see a lot of whooping cough,” O’Brien said. “It’s important to keep up on vaccines and you can be as safe and healthy as you can.”
Terry DeMio of The Enquirer and Valerie Royzman from the Wooster Daily Record contributed.