North Carolina saw immunizations for children plunge in 2020. It got better in 2021, but many NC babies and toddlers went without potentially life-saving vaccines.
When the COVID-19 pandemic started last year, Shaina Tyler’s son Kameron had just turned one.
Tyler, who lives in Angier, worried about the COVID-19 virus and, as a first-time mom, had heard about some parents holding off from vaccinations. But she placed her trust in her pediatrician and kept appointments so her son could get his recommended childhood vaccines.
“I’m not opposed to any of them, and I won’t start now because of COVID,” Tyler said. “I have parents and I had grandparents who lived through the beginning of all of these vaccines and you just did it.”
But many other parents in North Carolina and the nation didn’t keep up with those routine and all-important immunizations for children in their first few years of life. CDC data from 10 states showed a steep drop in routine childhood vaccinations in the months following COVID-19’s emergence in the United States, a sudden shift that could put children at risk of contracting diseases that have long been considered controlled — measles, mumps, whooping cough, and polio, to name a few.
“There was a huge concern early on that people were going to miss those critical appointments and were going to miss opportunities to get vaccines,” said Dr. Matthew Ledoux, pediatrician in chief for Vidant’s Maynard Children’s Hospital and the pediatrics chair at East Carolina University’s medical school.
In North Carolina, state health officials also saw the numbers of babies and toddlers getting their regular immunizations plunge in 2020. Though the numbers of immunizations have gone up in 2021, there’s still a gap from where the state was before the pandemic.
The pandemic-induced drop adds to the already steady decline pediatricians had been noticing in childhood immunizations over time, with access issues, growing anti-vaccination sentiments and confusion from parents about what to do giving many pause. Ledoux said the pandemic-related doesn’t seem linked to a rise in vaccine skepticism, but more out of concerns about staying safe from COVID at the start of the pandemic and health access issues.
The continuing lag in vaccines is one reason why Gov. Roy Cooper issued an executive order recently, giving children and their caretakers in childcare settings and K-12 schools more time to get the mandated vaccines needed to attend public schools and childcare centers in our state.
Parents and guardians typically must provide a school with immunization records within the first month of starting or be barred from attending, but the new order gives families and pediatricians until Dec. 1. North Carolina allows exceptions to the mandate for medical or religious reasons.
Cooper’s recent order doesn’t waive immunization requirements. It merely extends them in light of the time crunch pediatricians and parents are facing to get children in for their necessary appointments.
Dropping Vaccinations Also an Access Issue
While a COVID-19 vaccine may be approved within the month for children over the age of five, babies and toddlers will remain uncovered.
But there is something parents and guardians can do to protect young kids now – get them vaccinated against the myriad of other childhood diseases, pediatrician Ledoux recommended.
“There’s a lot of vaccines in that first year of life, but that’s to ensure essentially a lifetime protection,” Ledoux said. “So, I think having that conversation with your provider, letting them explain to you why we’re doing it, and knowing that there is actual thought behind and research behind why that schedule exists” is vital.
Ledoux said he and other pediatricians in Vidant’s Eastern North Carolina health care system know one of the biggest barriers for families is access, given the many areas where there simply aren’t enough doctors or pediatricians to treat everyone.
In fact, 19 rural counties in the state are without a practicing pediatrician, about one out of every five NC counties, according to the NC Health Professions Data System. That leaves places like Bertie, Warren, Northampton and Perquimans counties in the eastern part of the state and Ashe, Alleghany and Clay counties in Western North Carolina are among those without a dedicated pediatric practice.
“Especially here in rural eastern North Carolina, there’s an access issue,” Ledoux said. “And so [we’re] making sure that families have access to health care, that they can get those vaccines easily, that we make sure that our pediatricians offices are strategically located throughout the east or in rural communities to make sure that they get vaccines.”
But that doesn’t leave families entirely without options. County public health departments also provide vaccines, as do pharmacies.
Vaccinations, including the flu shot doctors recommend getting this time of year, are also typically free, either through insurance or programs that cover the costs.