Colorado childhood vaccinations still lag pre-pandemic level
Routine childhood vaccinations are still below pre-pandemic levels in Colorado, and health officials are pushing to catch kids up before they return to school.
The number of shots given to Colorado kids tanked during the stay-at-home order in spring 2020, with a roughly 38% decline compared to the same period in 2019. The numbers have mostly recovered, but about 9% fewer shots were given between March 20 and July 30 of this year than during the same period in 2019.
Dr. Meg Tomcho, a pediatrician at Denver Health, said her office saw a major decline in routine visits in the first months of the pandemic, but that patient volume is now slightly above normal. She said she’s seen some “spillover” hesitancy about routine vaccinations because of misinformation about the COVID-19 shots, but it’s not a huge shift.
“It is so much easier and safer to prevent disease than to treat disease,” she said at a mobile vaccine clinic at Clayton Early Learning in Denver on Friday. “We can get back on track to not seeing these diseases if we just focus on prevention.”
Denver Health has held mobile clinics for years, though they’ve taken on a new urgency following news that polio is spreading at low levels in two New York counties where only about 60% of toddlers are vaccinated. There’s no sign polio has made a return in Colorado, though the state has experienced outbreaks of preventable diseases, including measles and pertussis, in recent years.
The most recent statewide data on the vaccination rate is from the 2020-2021 school year, when 95% of kids were vaccinated against polio, and at least 91% had each of the other required shots. That was comparable to the previous year, but there was a slight drop-off among kindergarteners, with one in 10 not protected against polio and chickenpox.
The kindergarten vaccination rate is typically lower than the rate for older children, because parents who forgot to schedule shots before their kids started school will often do so after their school reminds them, said Dr. Sean O’Leary, an infectious disease specialist at Children’s Hospital Colorado. And while the vaccination rate is slightly lower than in 2019, it’s still better than it was in 2018, he said.
“Ninety-plus percent is good. We want to do better,” he said.
The vast majority of children in the state are fully vaccinated and have strong protection, but the concern is that there are pockets where the immunization rate is much lower, which would make an outbreak of a highly contagious virus like measles harder to contain, O’Leary said. In 2019, measles outbreaks in undervaccinated communities were contained because the surrounding areas had high coverage rates and public health leaders were able to launch a full-scale response, but the country might not be so lucky next time, he said.
“Now we’re in a situation where the measles vaccination rates have dipped and public health is stretched pretty thin,” he said.
Almost all health insurance plans are required to cover routine vaccinations without out-of-pocket costs, though parents can be charged if their children receive other services during a visit for their shots. Children without health insurance, who are American Indian or who are covered by Medicaid can receive free shots through the Vaccines for Children program.
On Aug. 2, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment started sending out text messages and emails to the parents of about 32,000 kids who may be behind on their routine vaccines. It pulled information for children between 4 and 6 whose records showed they weren’t up-to-date on their shots for measles, mumps and rubella, or for diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis.
Joe Hollman, a spokesman for the state health department, said the agency plans to reach out later this month to parents of older and younger children who are behind on their routine vaccinations.
Last year, the Denver Health team partnered with 11 schools in the fall and 16 in the spring to bring shots to areas with low vaccination rates, said Lucy Devaney, an AmeriCorps volunteer acting as immunization outreach and education coordinator in Denver. The clinics make it easier to catch kids up, because their parents don’t have to worry about taking off work, she said.
Getzy Martinez, who teaches at Clayton Early Learning, said that the mobile event Friday was convenient and allowed her and daughter Lylah Salazar to avoid waiting rooms full of sick people. Lylah, who is almost 2 and attends preschool at Clayton, only had to take one shot, for COVID-19, and rapidly got over the pinch when offered a lollipop.
“It just made me feel better that she can get it here,” Martinez said.
While the COVID-19 vaccine isn’t required for school, it’s a good idea for parents to get it for their kids, O’Leary said. While most kids don’t have severe symptoms from COVID-19, the same is true for some other vaccine-preventable diseases, including polio.
“COVID is a lot more severe in kids than some of the other diseases we vaccinate for,” he said.
The morning started slowly, with no one seeking routine vaccinations from the blue canopies on the campus’s lawn in the first hour. By the end of the day, they’d given children a combined 19 vaccines for COVID-19, but only three routine shots. Adults who’d missed shots or needed boosters also received a combined 14 doses.
It wasn’t a bad turnout, but on the busiest days, they can see more than 100 patients, said Denver Health spokeswoman Amber D’Angelo.
Devaney said she thought people might be experiencing some “vaccine fatigue” after hearing about COVID-19 shots, making them less likely to seek out routine vaccinations.
The routine shots “are just as important as the COVID vaccine,” she said.
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