Across the country, many parents have put routine childhood vaccinations on hold because of statewide stay-at-home orders due to the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. Childhood vaccination rates in the US dropped this spring when compared to the same time frame in 2019, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The decline in vaccination started in March 2020 when a national emergency was declared and many states implemented stay-at-home orders. Many medical offices converted visits to telehealth at that time and so patients did not go into the office for vaccinations.
The significant decline in vaccination puts unimmunized children and some adults at higher risk of acquiring vaccine-preventable diseases, such as measles and whooping cough. When the percentage of people who have received a vaccine decreases below a certain threshold, the community loses a vital protection called herd immunity. Herd immunity is the phenomenon that if enough people are immune to a disease (by vaccination or by natural immunity after having the disease), it is very difficult for the disease to spread through the population. In some way the people who are immunized are providing protection to the people who are not immunized.
Populations most at risk for vaccine preventable disease are young children, the elderly, and those with impaired immune systems. While newborns have immunity to some diseases because of the antibodies they receive from their mothers in the womb and through breastfeeding, this immunity does not last more than one year.
If vaccination rates fall below a certain level, the community is at serious risk of outbreak. Most notable in the past several years has been measles. Just last year, there were more than 1,200 measles cases in 31 states, even though the virus had been declared eliminated in the U.S. in 2000, and most of those cases were among people who were not vaccinated against measles.
Looking ahead to the fall flu season, it will be absolutely imperative to maximize influenza vaccination rates in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. In the 2018-2019 flu season there were an estimated 4.4 million cases of the flu, 58,000 hospitalizations from the flu and 3500 deaths. If there is a peak of COVID-19 in the fall or winter on top of the already higher rates of illness and hospitalization from the flu, our healthcare system could become overwhelmed with catastrophic consequences.
As uncertain as these times may seem, you can help protect yourself and your community. Be sure to get a flu shot as soon as they become available this fall (usually in September) and if your child has missed routine vaccinations, contact your physician to catch them up as soon as possible. Health care providers are taking extra steps to protect patients, staff and the community from the novel coronavirus. This includes limiting the number of people in offices to allow proper social distancing, requiring everyone in the office to wear a mask and increased disinfecting practices.
To learn more about age-appropriate vaccinations or to schedule an appointment with a physician, visit www.chisaintjosephhealth.org/provider-directory or call 859.313.2255 to make an appointment.
Dr. O’Leary is with CHI Saint Joseph Medical Group – Primary Care.