The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted health and well-being beyond the damage caused by the virus itself. In nearly every community, elective surgeries have been postponed, and routine care has been delayed. Amid closed health care offices and clinics, compounded by fear of contracting the novel coronavirus, routine vaccinations have declined significantly across all age groups, with demand plummeting as much as 95 percent for some vaccines.
An analysis from VaxCare, a private company that provides inventory management and other services for physicians in support of vaccine delivery, recently found that vaccine rates have dropped dramatically during the COVID-19 crisis. Vaccination rates for older adults dropped an alarming 83 percent compared to last year, and 19- to 49-year-olds saw declines of more than 60 percent. Another study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that in Michigan, fewer than half of infants age 5 months and younger are up-to-date on recommended vaccinations. In New York City, vaccine doses given to children dropped by 91 percent for children older than 2 years from March 23, 2020, to May 9, 2020. These stories are confirmed by my colleagues across the country who are deeply concerned about their patients not receiving recommended vaccines.
As the U.S. shifts to a “safer at home” approach, now is the time to catch up on postponed medical visits. The decline in immunization rates represents a threat to public health, but also a strong opportunity to prevent outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases such as measles, influenza (flu) and pneumonia. Life-saving vaccines should no longer be delayed, and we must do everything we can to encourage both health care professionals and patients to take the necessary steps to ensure that we take advantage of vaccines to protect all individuals in the U.S.
Immunization protects entire communities. Individuals who are not able to get vaccinated due to underlying health conditions rely on community immunity to protect them. If communities are not up-to-date on recommended vaccines, then vulnerable populations are left at greater risk of exposure to serious infectious diseases. Staying current on recommended vaccinations helps us to stay healthy and also protects those around us who are at greatest risk of serious complications from vaccine-preventable diseases.
On their own, outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases can lead to disabilities, long-term complications and even death. In the midst of COVID-19, outbreaks of other infectious diseases will strain the capacity of U.S. hospitals.
Vaccines are one of the most potent public health tools against a variety of diseases across the lifespan. From measles to flu, science has shown the tremendous benefits of well-vaccinated populations. For example, two doses of the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine provide 97 percent protection for the patient over a lifetime. And flu vaccinations can reduce the risk of flu by up to 60 percent. Look no further than the urgency to develop a safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine to see the tremendous role vaccines play in protecting public health and, ultimately, giving communities the confidence they need to return to normal activities such as school and work
While the growth of telemedicine has worked to bridge the gap for sick visits and some preventive care, vaccinations are a critical part of well-visits that must be administered in person. Fortunately, health care offices and pharmacies are finding new ways to provide safe environments for patients to receive vaccines. Health care professionals, who are well-trained in minimizing the risk of transmission of communicable diseases, wear personal protective equipment and enforce social distancing as the norm in these settings. Exam rooms and common areas are frequently sanitized to reduce the spread of viruses, while the waiting “room” in many settings has been transformed to a parking lot or specific area designated for patients receiving immunizations.
The National Foundation for Infectious Diseases (NFID) is leading a national Keep Up The Rates campaign to encourage all individuals to receive recommended vaccines that may have been put off during the pandemic. The multi-media campaign will engage national experts and leading public health organizations with the goal of reaching populations most at risk of delaying vaccinations or experiencing complications from vaccine-preventable diseases.
We need help in spreading these messages as widely as possible to help make up for the substantial declines in vaccination rates. Join us in encouraging your family, friends and patients of all ages to stay up-to-date on all recommended vaccines. Together, we can make our communities as healthy as possible and, one day, look forward to adding COVID-19 to the growing list of vaccine-preventable diseases. Visit www.nfid.org to learn more.