Child immunizations down during pandemic, increasing risk for an outbreak of vaccine-preventable illnesses

UCHealth pediatrician stresses importance of continued child-well visits, scheduled vaccinations during pandemic.
May 30th, 2020
Child wearing a mask gets an child immunization during pandemic.
Child immunizations during the pandemic, as well as child well-visits, are important ways to keep your child healthy and safe from vaccine-preventable illnesses and other issues. Source: Getty Images.

Pediatric vaccinations are essential to the health and well-being of children, but in the United States, there is a notable decrease in the number child immunizations during the novel coronavirus pandemic.

“We have seen immunization rates fall during the pandemic as parents were afraid to leave their homes,” said Dr. Heather Isaacson, a pediatrician with UCHealth. “We need to maintain herd immunity for the illnesses we already know how to prevent. If our vaccination levels drop too low, we will have outbreaks of other vaccine-preventable illnesses like measles or pertussis.”

Currently, there is no vaccine for COVID-19, but many immunizations for serious and potentially deadly diseases – measles, pertussis, polio and Hepatitis A – prevent children from getting sick. Keeping children protected from these preventable diseases is paramount, according to Dr. Seth Barkley, CEO of The Vaccine Alliance.

“Recent modeling from London School of Hygiene & Topical Medicine shows that if you were trying to avoid getting COVID by stopping routine immunizations, for every COVID death prevented, you would have more than 100 deaths from vaccine-prevented diseases, which reminds us how important immunizations are,” Barkley said in a May 22 World Health Organization press briefing.

Dr. Heather Isaacson talks about child immunizations during the pandemic.
Dr. Heather Isaacson, a pediatrician with UCHealth.

Isaacson stresses the importance of child well-care visits during the pandemic to ensure children are up to date on their immunizations, and to assess a child’s physical and mental health.

Why are child well-care visits important?

“Well child checks are where we ‘check-in’ on children’s growth and development, eating, sleeping and exercise habits, provide screenings for mental health, perform a head-to-toe physical exam and provide referrals for specialists if needed,” Isaacson said.

These visits also provide guidance for parents and adolescents, who can check in on their own risks and behaviors.

“These screenings are even more important right now since children have not been in school,” she said. “Our kids are suffering the same stressors that adults are feeling, and they need to continue their regular health care to optimize their physical and mental health.”

How is UCHealth keeping my child safe from COVID-19 during these visits?

“We are screening all patients for symptoms before they come into the clinic and separating well and sick patients,” Isaacson said. “Many sick patients are triaged with virtual visits to see where they should be seen or if they can stay home.

“In my clinic, sick and well patients are in separate hallways and exam rooms,” she continued. “We are eliminating waiting rooms and having patients wait in their cars until staff are ready for them. Extra cleaning precautions are being taken and all staff are wearing masks. We have adequate PPE (personal protective equipment) for sick patients.”

Read more UCHealth patient safety information.

Are there other options for these visits rather than coming into the office?

Child well visits can be done by Virtual Visits, Isaacson said, but it would need to be followed up by an in-office visit to finish the visit for the measurements, physical exam, vision screening and blood pressure. For this reason, most providers prefer to do them in one in-person visit.

Why is following my vaccination schedule so important?

“If our vaccination levels drop too low, we will have outbreaks of other vaccine preventable illnesses like measles or pertussis,” she said. “Other vaccines protect against pneumonia or meningitis.”

Here is the vaccination schedule recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

graph showing how immunizations for children have decreased since the start of the COVID pandemic
Source: https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/69/wr/mm6919e2.htm#suggestedcitation

My child is not due for any immunizations. Do they still need to have their annual child-well visit at this time?

“Yes!” Isaacson said. “There are things parents may not notice. Your child may have fallen off the growth chart. Maybe they will screen positive on their depression screening. Is their development on track? Their blood pressure could be high with no symptoms. Perhaps their vison is poor. They may have an abnormal physical exam finding that needs attention.

“The biggest tragedy of the pandemic that I have personally seen is that people of all ages are waiting too long to seek medical care because they are afraid,” she said.

Learn more about how UCHealth is keeping its patients — of all ages — safe from COVID-19 when they need medical attention.

About the author

Kati Blocker has always been driven to learn and explore the world around her. And every day, as a writer for UCHealth, Kati meets inspiring people, learns about life-saving technology, and gets to know the amazing people who are saving lives each day. Even better, she gets to share their stories with the world.

As a journalism major at the University of Wyoming, Kati wrote for her college newspaper. She also studied abroad in Swansea, Wales, while simultaneously writing for a Colorado metaphysical newspaper.

After college, Kati was a reporter for the Montrose Daily Press and the Telluride Watch, covering education and health care in rural Colorado, as well as city news and business.

When she's not writing, Kati is creating her own stories with her husband Joel and their two young children.