Many parents feel understandably hesitant about taking their kids to medical providers right now. It’s frightening to take your child into a place where they might come into contact with sick people, particularly since social distancing is crucial to keeping everyone healthy and safe.
But health experts worry that parents’ fears about the coronavirus pandemic are keeping them from protecting their children against other illnesses in the long term. Alarming new data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has found a “notable decrease” in the number of orders for routine vaccinations since COVID-19 began spreading in this country.
“We understand families want to stay home to prevent the spread of COVID-19,” Dr. Priya Soni, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at Los Angeles’ Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, told HuffPost. “But there are still several types of visits that are absolutely necessary.”
Here’s what parents need to know.
Do. Not. Skip. Vaccinations.
The American Academy of Pediatrics says that, even as the COVID-19 pandemic rages on, children should be seen for their usual “well-child” visits in person when possible — and in a timely manner.
It is particularly important to attend any checkups that include routine immunizations, the schedule for which has been agreed upon by the AAP, the CDC, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the American Academy of Family Physicians. In other words, by physicians who know what’s what. The timing of those visits isn’t something to be messed with. When coming up with the recommended immunization schedule, health experts weighed a complex mix of factors, including immune response and susceptibility to a given disease as well as the timing of other doses. So you shouldn’t simply put off an appointment by a month or two without first talking it through with your child’s provider.
“Many, many children have missed receiving important immunizations to protect them against diseases like measles, meningitis and whooping cough,” Dr. Sally Goza, president of the AAP, said in a statement last week.
“As a pediatrician, this is incredibly worrisome,” she said. “I remember treating children with these diseases as recently as the 1980s, and we do not want to return to a time when parents had to worry their infant could die of meningitis – especially when we have a vaccine to prevent it.”
If you’re unclear on which recommended checkups typically include immunizations, ask your child’s pediatrician or clinic ahead of time. They’ll tell you if it’s one you absolutely should keep. (Here is the current recommended immunization schedule for kids 18 and younger in the United States.)
Know what steps your care providers are taking to keep patients safe.
Health care providers have made a lot of changes in how they practice in order to try to limit the spread of COVID-19. Pediatricians are being especially diligent about scheduling checkups and sick-child visits at different times of the day to avoid the risk of a child coming into contact with a virus like COVID-19 in the waiting room. Many practices and clinics are splitting up their staff, so some deal with checkups only, while others see sick patients. Pediatricians are limiting the number of parents who can attend a visit and are requiring everyone to wear a mask.
“Pediatricians have innovated ways to make visits even safer, including setting different hours or locations for well and sick children, rigorous sanitation and cleaning practices,” Goza of the AAP said in her statement.
If you have concerns, talk to your child’s health care provider about the specific things they’re doing to make visits as safe as possible.
Some appointments can be done via telehealth.
If your child isn’t sick and has an appointment that doesn’t include an immunization, and you’d rather not go in, ask about a virtual visit. It could also be a possibility for a sick-child visit.
“If it’s a simple rash, for example, we can take a look at the child and get sort of a gestalt about what is going on,” Soni said.
It’s important to note, however, that not all checkups can be done virtually, particularly many newborn visits, Soni said. Even if those routine appointments don’t include vaccinations, they may still be really important for your child to attend.
Remember the long game.
The drop in routine vaccination during the COVID-19 pandemic is extremely worrisome to health care providers who are looking months down the road. They fear vaccine-preventable diseases could reemerge while we battle COVID-19.
“Fast forward to six months, a year from now, we may see a measles outbreak because of what we’re doing right now,” Soni said. “We don’t want to be dealing with a vaccine-preventable illness in the midst of a pandemic.” Even before the current drop in immunizations, that was a concern. In 2019, the United States faced a resurgence of measles, the highest annual rate of infection since the early 1990s.
“The problem is,” Soni said, “vaccine-preventable illnesses are going to be more apparent when we reopen schools and kids are mingling with each other again.”
Experts are still learning about the novel coronavirus. The information in this story is what was known or available as of press time, but its guidance around COVID-19 could change as scientists discover more about the virus. Please check the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for the most updated recommendations.
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