With social distancing guidelines in effect and schools in Pasadena and elsewhere announcing they will start the academic year with virtual learning only, children across the state are missing out on vital vaccinations against serious illnesses, according to public health officials.
In a trend described as worrying, the California Department of Public Health reported in May that childhood vaccinations had decreased by as much as 40 percent from last year.
“There’s national data and state data that confirms that routine childhood immunizations are down,” said Pasadena Director of Public Health Dr. Ying-Ying Goh. “Kids are not getting their regular vaccinations that they need to stay safe from all these childhood diseases that are deadly.”
While many people are preoccupied with COVID-19, other dangerous diseases, such as the measles, continue posing a threat to children.
“We want to get the message out there that pediatrician offices are open and they want their kids to get their vaccines,” said Goh, who is a pediatrician.
Goh reminded parents to make vaccinations part of their children’s back-to-school checklist, even if they’re not physically returning to class just yet.
While pediatricians will still want to examine babies and very young children at the time of vaccination, older children may be able to take part in drive-through vaccinations, Goh said.
“Check with your doctor’s office and find out what they’re offering,” she said.
With flu season just a few months away, Goh said it’s important for everyone to get an influenza vaccine once they become widely available in late September or early October. Flu season in Southern California generally begins in November.
“Flu has not gone away,” Goh said. “The problem is that there is the very distinct possibility of co-infection with flu and COVID-19,” she said.
The novel coronavirus already results in significant illness for many, and could be worse if coupled with an influenza infection.
Additionally, since COVID-19 and the flu bear similar symptoms, widespread vaccination could help cut down on cases of a type of flu that may be hard to immediately distinguish from COVID-19, resulting in unnecessary isolation and triggering a response from health officials until it can be determined which virus an ill person actually has, according to Goh. Such false alarms can result in major costs to both individuals and businesses.
Getting a flu shot “is good for everybody,” Goh said. It protects the patient from getting sick, it cuts down on unfounded COVID-19 scares, and it eases unnecessary strain on the medical system, which is bracing for a potential influx of both COVID-19 and influenza patients in the coming months.
As part of its reopening protocols released earlier this week, the Pasadena Unified School District (PUSD) included a section promoting flu vaccination for all students and staff.
Prior to welcoming students back after health officials declare it safe to return, the protocol calls for the district to “Develop and implement a flu vaccination program (vaccine education, promotion, and documentation of current vaccination) with the goal of influenza immunization for all students and staff unless contraindicated by documented medical exemption for flu vaccine,” according to the document.
The purpose is to “protect the school community from influenza, and co-infection with influenza and COVID-19 viruses,” as well as reduce demand on health care facilities, and “decrease illnesses that cannot be readily distinguished from COVID-19 and would therefore trigger extensive measures from the school and public health authorities,” the protocol states.
Goh said she approved of the decision.
“I think that is a really good move. I’m in support of education, encouragement, even a requirement,” she said.
The PUSD has announced it will begin the school year Monday, Aug. 17 with distance learning only.
In a letter to parents late last week, PUSD Superintendent Brian McDonald said it was not yet clear when in-person classes might resume.
“Although things continue to change rapidly, we are tentatively anticipating that the earliest we can transition to a hybrid model is at the start of the second quarter, which begins Oct. 19,” McDonald said. “However, we should be prepared to stay in distance learning through the end of the fall semester unless conditions change.”
State health officials also urged parents to not let childhood vaccinations fall by the wayside during the pandemic.
“This pandemic has disrupted so much, including how we’re seeking preventive health care services,” California Department of Public Health Director and State Health Officer Dr. Sonia Angell said in a written statement.
“During and after the pandemic, unvaccinated infants and children will be more vulnerable to dangerous diseases like measles and whooping cough,” Agell wrote. “It’s so important that parents make sure their children are up to date on their immunizations.”