TACOMA — As Washington’s vaccination rates plummet amid COVID-19, medical professionals are reminding families that students need to be up to date on their vaccinations by the first day of school this year even if they are returning remotely.
Doctors worry that not doing so could lead to outbreaks of other diseases and a strain on a health care system that’s trying to control the spread of COVID-19.
“The last thing we need right now with COVID is another measles outbreak or a whooping cough outbreak. To me, that would just put an extra burden on the health system,” said Dr. Carrie Jenner, a CHI Franciscan pediatrician from the Tacoma area.
Changes to state code that went into effect on Aug. 1 require medically verified immunization records for students entering both school and child care by their first day of school, according to the state Department of Health.
Previously, families had 30 days from the first day of attendance to provide the school or child care with the required immunization documentation, called “conditional status.”
“The vaccine requirements are definitely still in effect, and it’s even a little stricter this year in that you have to be up to date on the first day of school,” Jenner said.
That’s true even for students whose first days will look a bit different this year.
“Even though most schools are going online, kids still need to be up to date on their vaccines for school, because they potentially could not be able to join on the online programs until they’re up to date,” Jenner said.
Vaccinations required include the Measles, Mumps and Rubella (MMR); Varicella (chickenpox); Hepatitis B; Diphtheria, Tetanus, whooping cough (DTaP); and polio vaccines.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported a significant drop-off in routine pediatric vaccinations nationally since late March when COVID-19 cases started increasing.
Washington is no different.
According to Department of Health data provided by Jenner, March saw a 33.6 percent decrease in the average number of vaccinations for people up to 18 years old, a 39.7 percent decrease in April and a 26.9 percent decrease in May. The health department compared this year’s monthly data to data during the same months in 2015 through 2019.
“That was actually quite alarming for us,” Jenner said.
If immunizations drop far enough, there could be a recurrence of some diseases, Jenner said. The state had two measles outbreaks in 2019, totaling 87 cases — the most cases the state has seen since 1990.
Mary Bridge Children’s Mobile Immunization Clinics also has seen a significantly lower volume of children coming in for vaccinations, they said.
“Immunizations are the best defense against preventing many communicable diseases that can cause severe illness and death,” Dr. Roselynn Cuenca-Hodge, a pediatrician with Mary Bridge Children’s Evergreen Pediatrics, said in a press release on Wednesday. “While there’s currently no vaccine for COVID-19, we cannot forget about those illnesses that we do have protection against.”
Medical professionals are encouraging people to get flu shots this year for the same reason: It will prevent flu cases from interfering with the health care system’s ability to control COVID-19.
A new flu vaccine for children should be available sometime in October or November, Jenner said.
“A lot of people get the flu every year. A lot of people get very sick, end up in emergency departments, on our acute care floors, on our hospital floors and in our ICUs,” said Dr. John Lynch, medical director of infection prevention at Harborview Medical Center. “So if we can do anything to decrease that number … we’ll be able to preserve more capacity, more beds, more office visits, in our emergency departments, our clinics and our hospitals going forward.”
It’s also important for students to get their regular check-ups, Lynch said — and don’t wait.
“Now is the time to start working with your primary care doctor about when to do it,” Lynch said. “What we can’t do is sort of get everyone who missed their primary care appointments in in August.”
Understandably, many were worried about leaving their homes during a pandemic and a state-mandated stay-home order, Jenner said.
Now people are playing catch-up.
“At first we thought, ‘Oh, this will go away in a few months.’ Well, now that we know it’s not going away in a few months, it’s really important, and we’re really reaching out and trying to get the kids, especially the kids who were behind or missed their vaccinations, back in,” Jenner said.
Parents whose children need vaccines are encouraged to contact their child’s primary health care provider to schedule an appointment.