WOOSTER — The pediatric team at the Cleveland Clinic Wooster Family Health Center has been working quickly to reschedule in-person well-care appointments delayed due to COVID-19.
Some parents were fearful about bringing their kids into doctor’s offices, and medical professionals were figuring out ways to make their facilities safer, so now there’s a need to “ramp up over the summer,” said Dr. Adam Keating, a pediatrician who has worked at the health center for 16 years.
After reports from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revealed a nationwide drop in immunizations during the COVID-19 pandemic, local pediatricians and health professionals are advising parents to get their kids vaccinated before the new school year to avoid a second wave of sickness in the fall and winter that puts children at risk for illnesses such as measles and whooping cough.
“Vaccine-preventable illnesses don’t stop just because of COVID-19,” Keating said.
PCC, a pediatric electronic health records company, collected vaccine information from 1,000 independent pediatricians across the country, then compared one week’s immunizations in February with one in April. Doses of measles, mumps and rubella shots dropped by 50%. Diphtheria and whooping cough shots were down 42%. And human papillomavirus fell by 73%.
In Ohio, vaccines given to children 18 and younger that are reported to the state’s Immunization Registry dropped a little over 45% in a comparison between April 2019 to April of this year, according to the Ohio Department of Health. There was a 19% decrease from March of last year compared to this year.
Vaccine doses shipped to VFC (Vaccines For Children) providers in the state plummeted between March and April, from 126,200 to 73,395, data from ODH shows. VCF is a federally funded program that supplies free vaccines to public and private health care providers.
County-specific data is being gathered, but isn’t available yet, said Kelly Wagner, president of the Ohio School Nurses Association and a school nurse in Delaware County.
Don’t delay vaccines
Doctor appointments are always important, but Keating and Wagner agree there’s a greater urgency after seeing this decline and hearing that health departments are experiencing a similar trend. If families wait too long, their appointments could get pushed to October or November, Wagner said, which isn’t good for students returning to classrooms in August. Herd immunity against an infectious disease also can’t happen if a large portion of children aren’t vaccinated.
It’s about more than checking shots off the to-do list, Keating added.
“These are holistic appointments looking at the well-being and health of the kid as a whole,” he said. “What we want to do is make sure we’re not missing out on any other conditions that might adversely affect the kids as they’re going back to school.”
He listed asthma, when not well controlled, as an example. Screenings for mental health issues, which have increased during the pandemic, and diet are other things doctors pay attention to.
Looking ahead, a flu vaccine will likely be available in late summer or fall. This year, it’ll be crucial because people will have trouble telling the difference between influenza and COVID-19.
“The less influenza we have, the less confusing that’s going to be,” Keating said.
For fearful parents
Over the last few months, some parents had concerns about bringing their children to medical offices or health departments for appointments, Wagner said. For others, there was a misunderstanding that all primary care practices were closed, when really, many were open — especially for infants and those who it made sense to see in person — once they figured out how to quickly disinfect spaces and see patients while social distancing.
“A perfect example is I had to call my doctor to get my daughter’s inhaler refilled, not thinking they would want to see her,” she said. “I thought they would just call it in. But they said, ‘No, we want to see her for her well appointment.’ I was surprised, and I’m a medical person.”
With screenings, extra attention is paid to sanitation and asking employees and visitors to wear masks.
“Our facilities are as safe as anywhere, and safer than most that people are going to in the community,” Keating said.
For parents who are skeptical or have fears about immunizations, Keating shares that he vaccinates his own children, and that it benefits groups of kids that spend a lot of time together in school or other activities.
“Vaccines are safe, and vaccine-preventable diseases are not,” he said. “We certainly have the discussion with families who have concerns to talk about what we know with our expertise as health personnel.”
Getting a child vaccinated also protects others who can’t get vaccinated, like cancer survivors that school nurses sometimes work with, Wagner said.
Anne Saker from The Cincinnati Enquirer contributed to this story.