By William Schaffner, MD
(NewsUSA) - The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted our health and well-being beyond the damage caused by the virus. In nearly every community, elective surgeries have been postponed, and routine care has been delayed. Amid closed healthcare offices and clinics, compounded by fear of contracting COVID-19, routine vaccinations have declined significantly across all age groups, with demand plummeting as much as 95 percent for some vaccines.
A recent analysis found that vaccination rates in the US have dropped dramatically since the COVID-19 pandemic began. 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 found that in Michigan, fewer than half of infants age 5 months and younger are up-to-date on recommended vaccinations. These stories are confirmed by my colleagues across the US who are deeply concerned about their patients not receiving recommended vaccines.
As the country shifts to a "safer at home" approach, now is the time to catch up on postponed medical visits. The decline in vaccination rates represents a threat to public health, along with 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 healthcare professionals and patients to take the necessary steps to ensure that we use available vaccines to protect all individuals in the US.
The National Foundation for Infectious Diseases is leading a national Keep Up The Rates campaign with nearly 100 partners to encourage all individuals to receive recommended vaccines that may have been delayed during the pandemic. The multi-media campaign is engaging national experts and leading public health organizations to reach populations most at risk of delaying vaccinations or experiencing complications from vaccine-preventable diseases. A digital hub offers information and resources, including a shareable public service announcement video (in English and in Spanish) to encourage everyone to do their part to stay up-to-date on all recommended vaccines.
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 long-term complications and even death. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, outbreaks of other infectious diseases will also strain the capacity of US hospitals.
Vaccines are one of the most important and effective public health tools available to prevent many diseases across the lifespan. For example, two doses of the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine provide 97 percent protection and flu vaccinations can reduce the risk of flu and related complications 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 that vaccines can 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, healthcare offices and pharmacies are finding new ways to provide safe environments for patients to receive vaccines. Healthcare 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 vaccines.
We need help in spreading the campaign messages-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. To learn more about the steps that you can take to help keep up the rates for all recommended vaccines during the COVID-19 pandemic, listen to The Schaffner Report podcast.
William Schaffner, MD is Medical Director of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases.