Huge Increase in Kids Skipping Routine Vaccinations Leaves Many Students Vulnerable

Federal health officials say fears over COVID-19 vaccines and seeking routine medical care during a pandemic have left many students without any protection against diseases like measles.

Officials estimate fewer than a third of students age 12 and older in the state are fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

Federal officials say it’s a national concern as well.

Pediatrician Michael Warren is the associate administrator of the maternal and child bureau at the federal Health Resources and Services Administration.

He says the onset of the pandemic last year stopped some students from getting even the standard vaccinations they usually receive before going back to school. During the pandemic, non-COVID-19 vaccinations dropped below a 70% rate.

Listen: Federal health official Dr. Michael Warren explains how the pandemic has left some students vulnerable to diseases like measles.  

WDET’s Quinn Klinefelter spoke with Michael Warren on the impact of the decrease in immunizations. Read an excerpt of their conversation, edited for brevity and clarity, below.

Michael Warren, Health Resources and Services Administration: Early on, the instructions were stay home. Don’t come into the clinic unless you’re very, very ill. And so, parents really took that to heart and particularly bringing kids in for well-child checks was something that didn’t happen as frequently over the last 18 months. And one way we can measure that is through looking at immunizations. And we know that for some individual immunizations the rates were decreased as much as 60% at some point during the pandemic. Overall, compared to where we were prior to the pandemic, we’re down as much as 20% for some key vaccines like measles-containing vaccines. So it certainly is worrisome that kids are vulnerable to those illnesses that can be prevented by those vaccines.

Quinn Klinefelter, WDET News: You mentioned people not wanting to go to health clinics and the like because of COVID, obviously. Even in some of the best of times I’ve heard some health care providers say, “You know, if you can avoid coming here do [so] because there’s people here that are sick.” So is this a time right now to have children in particular who could be vulnerable going to such places?

It’s a really good question. And I think pediatric providers have grappled with this very question. And they’ve been quite adaptive during the pandemic. So we’ve seen examples of the ways that people are making this work in the new norm. Providers sometimes will have part of the day set up for sick visits and part of the day for well visits. So you’re not commingling those patients. Or if they have the physical space to do it, they might have part of their clinic set up for sick visits and part of their clinic for well visits. But even more innovative than that, we’ve heard examples of people having families call from the parking lot and they go out and can actually provide immunizations in the car. And so, folks are really adapting to try to make sure that kids don’t miss out on these routine immunizations and components of well-child checks, while also making sure that we keep kids in their family safe.

One of the things about the vaccines that you’re mentioning, the “standard” ones, is that they’ve been around for a while. I’ve heard some parents in particular talk about fears over the COVID vaccine being too new. One was saying, “Well, it’s not been tested enough yet because we are the test. And we don’t really want to be that.” What would you say to those parents?

I would say a few things. One, the technology on which these COVID-19 vaccines are built is not new. While the vaccines were developed quickly, that’s not because corners were cut in developing those vaccines. There was great effort to make sure that multiple steps that used to happen sequentially were able to happen at the same time, without cutting corners with regards to safety. I feel very confident in recommending the COVID-19 vaccine from a safety and efficacy standpoint, based on the data that we have to date. These vaccines have been studied extensively. And I also, if I think about how I talk to parents and even family members and friends about this, I gauge what are my pediatrician colleagues doing, what are my infectious disease colleagues doing with their own kids? And almost to a person, every pediatrician who has a child 12 to 17, almost every infectious disease (expert) who had a child 12 to 17, had their kids in line the very first day that vaccine was available to them. I think that speaks, hopefully, very highly to families who are wondering about this.

“Almost to a person, every pediatrician who has a child 12 to 17, almost every infectious disease [expert] who had a child 12 to 17, had their kids in line the very first day that vaccine was available to them.” –Dr. Michael Warren

There’s a group of millions of children under the age of 12 who are not yet eligible for a COVID vaccine of any type. But there’s been some federal officials pushing for the emergency use authorization of those types of vaccines. Some have concerns over whether there could be heart problems and the like if you give it to a child between the ages of say, 5 and 12. As a pediatrician yourself, for parents who would have a child under age 12, right at this moment as school starts, would you advise them to send them to school, since they’re not eligible for a vaccine? If all they can do is wear a mask if they go to school? Or in some places where perhaps they’re not going to be allowed to wear a mask? Or would you say that it would be safer for them to have them do virtual learning at home?

I think parents across the country are grappling with this very question. And I feel for every parent who is trying to make that decision. I think, certainly, we are all thinking about how we protect kids from COVID. And for kids who are old enough, 12 and older, to get the vaccine, that’s a great way to protect them from COVID. For the younger kids, the recommendation is actually for anybody 2 years old or older who is unvaccinated, and kids 12 and under fall into that category, the recommendation from CDC is that they wear a mask in indoor places. And so, there are ways that we know that kids can be protected from COVID even if they can’t be vaccinated. That’s one strategy, masking. There really are a variety of what we [call] “layered strategies.” So masking, vaccinating the people who are around those kids who can’t be vaccinated, the ventilation, distancing, all those put together. It’s not just one piece, but it really is this layered approach to prevention strategies. That is particularly helpful. And we then balance that and the risks of COVID against the risks of kids not being in school. Thinking about social and emotional development, thinking about the academic learning that happens and the challenges of doing that in a virtual space. There are trade-offs when kids aren’t in school in person. So that can be a difficult choice for folks to make.

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  • Quinn Klinefelter
    Quinn Klinefelter is a Senior News Editor at 101.9 WDET. In 1996, he was literally on top of the news when he interviewed then-Senator Bob Dole about his presidential campaign and stepped on his feet.