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Childhood vaccination rates dropped amid the pandemic. Will they rebound?

Health experts in the U.S. are worried too many children are not receiving the standard childhood vaccinations they need. In the beginning of the pandemic, doctors’ offices told people to stay away in order to control the spread of the virus. Now, it’s possible parents listened too well, as standard vaccinations inch upward but remain below target levels. Stephanie Sy reports from Michigan.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Speaking of vaccines, doctors are worried too many children are not getting the standard childhood vaccinations they need.

    In the beginning of the pandemic, many doctors' offices told people to stay away to control the spread of the virus. Many parents listened, maybe too well.

    But, while vaccinations are inching upward, Stephanie Sy tells us health officials remain concerned.

    Here's her report from Michigan.

  • Michelle Long:

    Are you ready?

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Four-year old Leah Long likes whooshing down slides, driving her imaginary car, and going for walks with her parents, Michelle and Craig, and her big brother, Bubba, in his specially designed wheelchair.

    Like lots of 4-year olds, this summer, Leah was due for some of her critical childhood vaccinations, those that guard against serious diseases like tetanus, pertussis, and measles. But bringing her to the doctor in the midst of the pandemic was a big concern for her mom.

  • Michelle Long:

    Having two medically fragile kids, I mean, it's hard. I'm not going to tell you that it's easy. And this pandemic just makes it that much harder.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Leah and her brother are both adopted. And 6-year-old Bubba is a quadriplegic with cerebral palsy.

  • Michelle Long:

    I always worry about him catching something, because, while he's not going anywhere right now, we have been told respiratory is going to be the thing that takes him. So, being in this pandemic right now, it's all respiratory.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Parental fears about bring children in for checkups and routine vaccinations have led to worrying trends.

    In the first few months of the pandemic, the Centers for Disease Control noted that orders for vaccines had fallen drastically, compared to the same time period last year. In the state of Michigan, where the Longs live, vaccines administered by federal and state programs dropped 63 percent in April over the prior two years.

    Bob Swanson is the immunization director for Michigan's Department of Community Health.

    So, we're now several months into the pandemic, Bob. Have you seen vaccination rates go back up to where they should be?

  • Bob Swanson:

    No, unfortunately, we haven't. We have seen — we're still about 21 percent lower doses administered when we compare it to the same time a year ago or two years ago.

    So, we're very concerned about this whole pocket of kids that will go through the system and not be vaccinated.

  • Layla Mohammed:

    I think vaccinations have proven over time to be one of the most effective tools that we have to protect ourselves from infections.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Dr. Layla Mohammed is Leah and Bubba's pediatrician in Ypsilanti, Michigan.

  • Layla Mohammed:

    For my wonderful family, Michelle and I actually corresponded and discussed how the visit is going to be.

  • Michelle Long:

    If I could give you my e-mail thread with me and the doctor, you would laugh, because I was every day and some days twice a day e-mailing the doctor saying: I'm not sure.

    She assured me. She kept telling me: It's OK. We have everything.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    After getting many assurances from Dr. Mohammad, Leah went in for her visit, 30 days after she was originally scheduled, and her mom took extra precautions.

  • Michelle Long:

    With a 4-year-old being everywhere and touching things and putting her fingers in her mouth, that was my biggest concern.

    So, I really — what I did was I put gloves on her and made sure that she didn't touch anything. And I — we played a game and just pretended like it was wintertime.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    One of the critical vaccinations Leah received was for measles, which is six times more contagious than scientists know COVID-19 to be.

    Before 1963, the childhood disease caused 6,000 deaths a year in the U.S. and, even now, it's seeing a resurgence around the world, which could be further fueled by the pandemic-related gap in inoculations.

    That lag, could that present a real public health concern?

  • Bob Swanson:

    It absolutely does, because the more susceptible people you have to a disease, the greater the risk of it being reintroduced into the population. And then the spread becomes quicker as well.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    In the suburbs of Grand Rapids, Michigan, 11-year old twins Rae and Reese Defrang got in a few last flips on their trampoline under the watchful eyes of their mom, Renee.

    While the Mulder siblings ages 2 to 8, got creative with sidewalk chalk. They were burning off a little energy before piling into their family SUVs for a different kind of doctor's visit.

    Our crew tagged along as they went to get their flu vaccines without ever setting foot in an office.

  • Rachel Mulder:

    You know, obviously, with four kids, nothing's quick, nothing's easy. But to get it all on one visit, to just be able to go out in the parking lot and have them do it that way, it's a convenience. It saves time.

  • Renee Defrang:

    It's so nice to have this option. For those who are a little bit more nervous about that, then you're right in your car, and you have less risk of exposure. You can still get the vaccination that you need to get.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Spectrum Health, the largest health care provider in Western Michigan, started offering the drive-through immunizations when they noticed that huge drop in visits during the spring COVID lockdowns.

    Mary Zimmerman oversees immunizations.

  • Mary Zimmerman:

    That's where we decided we needed to kind of think outside the box and come up with something different, so that the patients felt safe getting vaccinated.

    Vaccines prevent children and adolescents from 16 different serious diseases.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Convenience and comfort aside, for health care professionals, these flu vaccines serve an especially vital function right now.

    Rae and Reese's dad, Dr. Aaron Defrang, explains.

  • Aaron Defrang:

    You know, if someone were to get infected with influenza and COVID in close proximity to each other, that might not look good. That might be a very serious illness.

    I think people don't realize that most hospitals traditionally are at or near capacity in the wintertime. And we just need to have that safety net. We need to have those beds available for people if there's any surge of anything, of course, COVID being the main concern now.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    On the opposite side of the state, that message has resonated with Michelle Long. She already has a date scheduled for Leah and Bubba to get their flu shots.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Stephanie Sy.

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