Falling Immunization Numbers Amid Pandemic May Threaten Children’s School Year
Across the state, rates for the vaccines required for children to enter classrooms and child care are down. That could be a problem for families that opted to wait because of COVID-19.
When it was time for Carolina Alborada to take her two children to their annual check-up in May of last year, she opted to stay home
“My fear was that my husband and my children would contract the virus,” Alborada said. “That’s why I decided to skip the other vaccines.”
The Volusia County resident preferred to keep her 2- and 4-year-old kids at home, reasoning she’d rather protect her family from an unknown virus than give them preventive vaccinations.
“COVID scared me much more than the other existing viruses,” Alborada said.
She’s not the only parent who made that calculation. Across the state, rates for the vaccines required for children to enter classrooms are down. With the new school year approaching, that could be a problem for families like Alborada’s.
“We ask people to start thinking about this now, during the summer, and not wait for the beginning of the school year in order to avoid long lines at vaccination centers,” Alachua County Public Schools communications director Jackie Jonson said.
State law requires that all children receive immunizations that protect against diphtheria, tetanus, polio, measles, mumps, rubella, and other diseases to attend child care centers or schools.
According to the Florida Department of Health report on immunizations from the county health departments in the state, the statewide target for the previously listed childhood immunizations is 90% for children by the time they are 2 years old. In the 2021 report, 36 county health departments were included (because they had more than 10 children who received their immunizations from the health department). Out of those 36 counties, 21 achieved or exceeded the target. However, statewide coverage levels decreased from 93.4% in 2017 to 79.3% in 2021.
The report also said 16.4% fewer children used the county health departments for their regular immunizations in 2021 than in 2020. From 2017, that number has decreased by 42.6%. According to the report, telehealth appointments and reductions in attendance at licensed child care facilities that require immunizations contributed to this decline.
“While these measures may have helped reduce the spread of the [COVID-19] virus, they may have also contributed to parents postponing routine childhood vaccination,” the report said.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported a similar issue at the national level. From 2018 to 2020, the number of vaccinations administered to children and adolescents had decreased dramatically in 10 states analyzed in the study (which did not include Florida). For example, the percent of DTaP doses administered to children under 2 years old declined a median of 15.7% in those states from 2018 and 2019 to 2020. For children ages 2-6 years old, the median decline was 60.3%.
The HPV vaccination dose administration also declined a median of 63.6% for children 9-12 years old, and 71.3% for children 13-17 years old, in those 10 states, according to the CDC report.
Without these vaccinations, children cannot attend licensed child care centers or schools.
Johnson recommends making an appointment with her children’s pediatrician or primary doctor as there will be no exceptions, unless for medical or religious conditions. The pandemic will not be an excuse for those who do not comply with the required vaccinations in school classrooms.
According to the CDC report, the delay in immunizations poses a “serious threat to public health that would lead to outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases.”
Meredith Ashley, a family nurse and CVS MinuteClinic practitioner, said that many people were concerned about following stay-at-home orders, which caused some children to fall behind on their vaccinations.
“It’s really important that they get the vaccines that are recommended and at the right time,” Ashley said. “Now that there are people who have fallen behind, it is important for them to catch up.”
Those who do not comply with the recommended vaccines for their children expose them to other diseases. Ashley says that children, apart from being exposed to other young people at their schools, are also exposed to their relatives who can carry diseases that children could contract.
In addition to Johnson’s recommendation for scheduling an appointment with primary care doctors, CVS provides immunizations to children 18 months and older. The drug store and pharmacy has access to an online database to see which immunizations children have and can administer all of the doses required for Alachua County schools.
Alborada plans to catch up on immunizations for her little ones.
“With everything returning to normal, my husband and I have been vaccinated, I feel more comfortable going out and visiting a hospital,” Alborada said.