- Pediatricians are reporting that more than half of children in the United States are missing scheduled vaccinations due to shelter-in-place orders under the COVID-19 pandemic.
- They say doctors are reaching out to parents to explain the importance of keeping children up to date on vaccinations to avoid a surge in cases of illnesses such as measles and whooping cough.
- They’re also explaining to parents how they can safely bring their children into medical facilities to be vaccinated.
Chalk it up to perhaps an abundance of caution, but the numbers are clear.
More than half of the children in the United States may be missing scheduled vaccinations in the midst of the shelter-in-place orders under the COVID-19 pandemic.
Without change, pediatricians say they fear Americans could face a second wave of sickness in the fall and winter — this time with illnesses such as measles and whooping cough.
“Children still need to be protected from certain things and, somewhere in all of this, that message has gotten lost,” Dr. Sara “Sally” H. Goza, FAAP, a pediatrician in Fayetteville, Georgia, and president of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), told Healthline. “And that’s really scary. We’ve done a really good job of explaining why people should stay home. We can do better explaining when it is OK to go out.”
Goza said AAP estimates that up to 40 percent of children scheduled for vaccinations in recent months have missed them. When you extend that out to include teenagers and vaccinations for human papillomavirus (HPV), it climbs as high as 80 percent.
“It’s critical that we help parents understand that they need to get their children in (for scheduled vaccinations),” Goza said. “Measles, whooping cough: It does not take a lot for those to come back. If we don’t have enough herd immunity, they will come back. We could even have polio. It’s still out there, you know.”
Across the nation, pediatricians are working to remind parents that these inoculations should still happen.
They hope to help parents work past the hurdles keeping them from taking children in for vaccinations, as well as explaining why timing is of the essence.
“Many vaccinations don’t work with just one dose,” Dr. Claire McCarthy, a pediatrician at Boston Children’s Hospital in Massachusetts, told Healthline. “Any time you stray from that schedule, (vaccinations) are less likely to work.”
At her hospital, McCarthy said, they “noticed pretty quickly” that children were missing vaccinations. She said they also realized quickly that “a lot of this was our fault.”
Reaching out, they found that parents were both afraid of the risk of going to a doctor’s office, as well as wanting to obey the rules set in place.
The result, she said, is a massive drop in those making appointments, something McCarthy finds perfectly understandable.
“There’s the mom of the infant who can only take public transportation, who also has her elderly dad at home,” she said. “Some don’t even feel comfortable asking for or getting a ride from someone. What do you say in that situation? Everybody is just trying to keep everyone safe.”
What doctors have to do, McCarthy said, is remind parents that appointments for vaccinations are vital.
Boston Children’s Hospital and other medical facilities have begun reaching out under the guidance of AAP to encourage parents of children 24 months and younger to get up to date on vaccinations.
“Many families who are afraid may be reassured when they understand that we have procedures (to keep them safe),” McCarthy said.
She suggests any parent who has held off reach out to their pediatrician’s office and share their concerns.
“We can find ways to make this work. We can work together to figure it out,” she said.
Dr. Tina Q. Tan, an attending physician of infectious diseases at Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago and a professor of pediatrics at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Illinois, has seen the rapid decrease in her region as well.
“A lot of parents are just scared to expose their kids,” she told Healthline.
Her facility is also doing outreach to explain to parents why keeping the timing is crucial and how they can feel comfortable doing it.
“It’s really important,” she said. “Parents need to understand that these diseases (measles, whooping cough) are still out there and are still circulating. Their children need this protection.”
Boston Medical Center has come up with one solution: Bring the vaccines to the children.
The hospital has two borrowed ambulances from Brewster Ambulance and turned them into vaccination clinics.
The hospital reaches out to residents by zip code and sets up appointments on their street.
As a “safety net” hospital, they knew they had to take action, said Dr. Eileen M. Costello, chief of ambulatory pediatrics at Boston Medical Center and a clinical professor of pediatrics at Boston University School of Medicine.
“I could not stand the idea of the children of those very same people (who are afraid to do visits) getting whooping cough or measles,” Costello told Healthline.
And so, the program was launched.
“This is an unprecedented situation. We knew we have to take care of this or we will have another type of outbreak in children,” she said.
The hospital preps families with a time to meet up and details of what they and their children can expect.
“An ambulance and a person in PPE (personal protective equipment) can be scary to a child,” Costello said. “We help parents prepare them not to be scared.”
The feedback, she said, has been “unbelievably positive,” not only to the families but to her staff as well.
“It’s a huge morale booster for the pediatricians and nurses,” Costello said, “because, you know, being around kids and doing our job. It’s good for everyone.”
The goal is to get everyone who has missed back on their vaccination schedule and to keep those who are scheduled up to date.
“Let’s just take measles as an example,” Costello said. “If we have under 95 percent vaccinated, we will see outbreaks.”
Goza said across the nation, pediatricians are hard at work to keep children up to date.
Whether a family has waited because of fear, wanting to stick to rules, or worried about a loss of health insurance, she said, there is a solution. Reaching out to a pediatrician is the best first step.
“We are here to do all we can to keep children safe. We are here. We want all eyes on children. You know, we care about them. But also: Delays in vaccinations put everyone at risk,” she said.
Costello said that families like the mobile program so much, it might lead to other kinds of programs in the future.
“That’s the silver lining,” she said. “Finding new methods and solutions. (Boston Medical Center) has a history of doing that, and it’s great. Many others are reaching out to us and saying, ‘How can we do this?’ Of course, we help. We want well children. That’s our mission every single day.”