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Fewer children are receiving routine vaccines. Health officials fear COVID could be the reason

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USF Health professor Jill Roberts provides some possible explanations for this drop, including vaccine hesitancy that the COVID-19 pandemic intensified.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that fewer children are getting routine vaccinations required to enter school.

During the 2020-21 school year, the rate of children who received vaccinations for measles, whooping cough and chickenpox before kindergarten fell by 1% nationally to 94%.

And in Florida, Politico reports that the rate of routine immunizations in county-run facilities for 2-year-olds fell from 92.1% in 2019 to 79.3% in 2021.

Health News Florida's Katrine Bruner discussed the decline with Jill Roberts, an associate professor in the University of South Florida's College of Public Health.

What are the reasons behind the decline in vaccination rates among children?

I think there are multiple factors. One part of it is that we have less people going to do primary care. And so if you're a parent, during this time period, in order to take your child into the doctor's office, you had to make a choice. Is it worth the chance that there could be kids there that have COVID? In which case, you could be putting your kid at risk. The other factor, of course, is that school was mostly online. And so a school will require you to bring a health record in for your child to enroll, or to continue in school, but they were at home. There was nothing driving those wellness checks. So then unfortunately, the other factor is probably vaccine hesitancy. It's not the first time we've seen hesitancy, it's been around, but it was much more quiet in the past. COVID vaccine hesitancy really blew up and kind of met a national stage unlike its ever seen before.

Do you think misinformation or anti-vaccine campaigns in Florida may have played a part in fewer children getting routine vaccinations? 

Yeah, I'm sure that this is true. And it's not just Florida, it's a nationwide program. So what's different about COVID is people put it in a different category. So they see children after getting COVID and recovering and seemingly fine. Now, we don't know the long-term impacts of getting COVID. So in their minds, COVID does not equal polio and all these other diseases that we vaccinated for. And so this hesitancy really kind of grew up to say, well, maybe we don't need this, maybe this is a mild disease, maybe I'm putting my child at risk. If you put that little amount of doubt in there, people who push anti-vax campaigns will jump on it in a heartbeat.

Thousands of children in Florida already received religious exemptions that allowed them to forgo required vaccines for school. National data shows more people may be applying for and getting these exemptions. Why could that be an issue? 

Yes, so this is unfortunate. To put some data behind it, there are no major religions that oppose vaccination. In fact, some of the biggest vaccination campaigns in the world are actually led by faith leaders. So churches and mission groups and all these people go out and they vaccinate. However, it's a loophole. And so individuals who really don't want to vaccinate, but they still want their kids to go to school, or they still want to get that job or whatever it is that's the barrier, will jump on that.

What percentage of children need to be vaccinated to prevent outbreaks? 

So being a public health practitioner, I say all of them. But to answer scientifically, it's really high. In order for us to prevent measles, we have to hit a 95% threshold. In fact, the goal for 2030 is 90%. We were there. So before this last year, we were at 95% of children getting their vaccinations. Why it's so high is measles. Nothing spreads like measles. So we've seen Coronavirus, maybe give it a run for its money. But measles was the big barrier where we said OK, we've got to get all these people vaccinated.

Do you know if Florida has done anything to boost vaccination rates over the past few years?

I'd say we've done the opposite, unfortunately. And so we've gone against national guidelines that recommend vaccinations in the state of Florida. And so that's unfortunate. I haven't yet seen any official notification against any vaccine other than COVID. Now, obviously, with COVID, we've gone against what has been recommended nationwide. But for other vaccines, as far as I know, we're still kind of toeing the same line as what the CDC recommendations are.

Do you think COVID has permanently changed the way many people perceive vaccinations?

Yeah, I think COVID actually brought a lot of shift in things and shift in thinking and in ways that aren't necessarily great. And so when everyone asked me the question, "What is my risk?" I'd say, "No. What's the community's risk?" Because you are not safe if we do not vaccinate the community, because I can't guarantee you that vaccine was 100%. So you got to have everyone around you be vaccinated to prevent. And so what COVID has done is really shifted from that community mindset to a me individual freedom mindset. And so I think that COVID shifted things badly, and in a way that's dangerous — dangerous for the individual and dangerous for the community.

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