By Suzanne Wallace, MD
Pediatricians across the country have seen office visits decline by up to half during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). Children have missed well-child checks as well as vaccines that are routinely given during these visits.
According to PointClickCare, a pediatric electronic health records company, there has been a 50 percent drop in measles, mumps and rubella vaccinations, a 42 percent drop in diphtheria and pertussis vaccinations and a 73 percent drop in Human Papilloma Virus vaccinations administered during the pandemic.
Now that COVID-19 restrictions are being lifted and many schools plan to reopen for in-person learning in the fall, it is a good time to check in with your child’s pediatrician about which vaccines your child needs, especially since we have an approved COVID-19 vaccine for children ages 12-18 years.
- It was reported that vaccination rates (excluding COVID-19 vaccines) dropped dramatically during the pandemic. Why is this a concern?
A: The drop in vaccination rates that we have seen during this pandemic leaves our communities vulnerable to outbreaks in vaccine-preventable and life-threatening illnesses such as Measles, Meningitis and more. These outbreaks put our infants who are too young for vaccines and those with compromised immune systems at even higher risk.
Q: Are we at a point now in the pandemic where it’s safe to schedule my child’s well visit and receive any overdue vaccines?
A: Yes! In addition to routine COVID precautions such as symptom screenings, masking and disinfecting practices, most pediatric office employees and providers are vaccinated against COVID-19. Because vaccines protect everyone, not just the person who receives it, an office with vaccinated doctors and staff means less risk of transmission to others.
- Are there any special precautions I should take when bringing my child to the pediatrician?
- Most pediatrician offices will still request that you wear a mask, and you may be screened for symptoms. Some offices are scheduling sick and well patients separately, so be aware that this may affect your ability to “walk-in.” While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has recently relaxed masking recommendations, and the City of Birmingham’s mask mandate has expired, it is still recommended masks be worn in a doctor’s office because you are more likely to come into contact with a sick individual in this setting.
- There’s a lot of information circulating on COVID-19 vaccines for eligible children ages 12-18. What do you tell parents when they are considering whether they should have their child vaccinated?
- While children are at lower risk than adults for having severe or complicated COVID-19, they do serve as reservoirs for the virus, meaning they can pass it to other members of their community who are higher risk. Vaccinating as many people as possible is critical in stopping COVID-19 – without a host, a virus cannot exist! In addition, though rare, some kids can be affected by a post-COVID syndrome called Multisystem Inflammatory System in Children (MIS-C), which causes full-body inflammation and can be life-threatening.
Vaccination is extremely effective in preventing severe disease and death from COVID-19 and also reduces transmission. The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine has been approved in children ages 12-18 years, and rigorous studies have shown that the vaccine is safe in adolescents. If you have a child who is not eligible for vaccination, rest assured that it is currently being studied in younger children. We have had a long year of social distancing and minimizing time away from home; keep in mind that preventing illness with vaccination is another vital way to keep our communities healthy and end this pandemic.
Q: The COVID-19 vaccination rates remain low in Alabama. Knowing many children will return to onsite learning this year without being fully vaccinated against COVID-19, what are some additional precautions you recommend parents consider?
A: School is critical to the social and cognitive development of children and should be prioritized. Local, state and federal public health groups are helping to guide reopening of schools and will oversee the implementation of these guidelines. The best precaution to take to protect your child is to have him or her vaccinated, or vaccinate yourself if your child is under 12 years of age. Masks should be worn indoors when social distancing is not possible, particularly in unvaccinated children. Your child’s pediatrician and the CDC and AAP have resources to help parents navigate the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Suzanne Wallace, MD, is a pediatrician at Simon Williamson Clinic, Princeton Baptist Medical Center