Updated September 8, 2020 - 11:28 am
Vaccination rates for children are ticking up after plummeting in the spring, when lockdowns and fear of COVID-19 had parents skipping visits to the pediatrician.
Although many students in Nevada are online for school instead of in the classroom, they are still required to be up-to-date on their vaccinations, except in cases of medical or religious exemption. As a result, vaccination rates are improving, but they continue to remain below normal for the state, which already had some of the lowest rates in the country.
To avoid a public health crisis, health authorities are urging parents to take action.
“When a certain number of vaccines get missed, we see those diseases come roaring back,” said Dr. Rebecca Meyers, an assistant professor of pediatrics at the UNLV School of Medicine. Recent examples include last year’s outbreaks of measles in California and New York.
The concern about the decline in vaccinations is deepened by the presence of a pandemic.
While “the whole world runs around looking for a COVID vaccine, every other stupid disease that we vaccinate is going in the toilet, including measles, which parents in the U.S. are not getting for their kids because they’re not going to the doctor,” said Arthur L. Caplan, founding head of the Division of Medical Ethics at New York University’s Grossman School of Medicine.
“If you want to get a nightmare scenario for late in the year, you could have COVID come back, the flu start up and measles break out. That’s my super duper trifecta of misery,” Caplan said during a recent National Press Foundation webinar.
In May, nonprofit Immunize Nevada reported that the state had seen a 64 percent decline in routine childhood vaccinations since March, but that the trend was beginning to improve.
By early August, the number of doses of vaccine administered to Nevada children had dropped by 28 percent compared with the same period in 2019, according to an analysis by the Division of Behavioral Health, part of the Nevada Department of Health and Human Services.
In July and August, the offices of Immunize Nevada received hundreds of calls a day from parents wanting to know where they could get their children vaccinated, said Heidi Parker, executive director of the nonprofit. Some of the parents had been notified by their children’s schools that they their kids would be excluded from class until they met requirements.
With all that parents have had to be worried about, vaccines weren’t necessarily top of mind.
“Parents have been worried about ‘What is school going to look like? Am I distance learning, is it a hybrid, what’s happening?’” Parker said. “ And I don’t know if vaccines were at the top of that list, like maybe they had been in past years, because we have so many other things I think that parents are worried about right now.”
Parents are “trying to juggle work, trying to juggle their children’s education at home,” said Dr. Evelyn Montalvo Stanton, chair of the UNLV School of Medicine Department of Pediatrics. “Some of them don’t have computers. And some parents are not computer savvy. So when you’re talking about inner-city families, their struggle is a lot higher.”
And with children seemingly healthy and mostly at home, parents may not see the need for their children to be vaccinated despite that the children are likely to have some contact with other people during shopping trips or visits with relatives, any one of whom might have been exposed to the virus, she said.
Infants, toddlers at risk
It’s not just school-age children at risk.
“We’re really worried about the kids under 2. Those are the ones that have the most risk of complication and death” from certain preventable childhood illnesses, said JoAnn Rupiper, director of clinical services for the Southern Nevada Health District.
The district’s immunization clinics are seeing about 40 percent fewer clients for immunizations, partially due to social distancing measures that are limiting capacity. But Rupiper said the usual demand is not there.
One positive note is that with the preoccupation over a vaccine for COVID-19, people who in the past haven’t gotten a flu vaccine are now receptive to the idea, said Las Vegas Valley pediatrician Dr. Blair Duddy.
“The flu vaccine is more important than ever, because we don’t really want to have patients with influenza and COVID-19 in the lungs at the same time,” he said.