LANSING, Mich. —
Michigan avoided a severe flu season last year with the help of masks and social distancing measures but a new challenge is facing the state: low rates of vaccination for diseases other than COVID.
In the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, many families stayed home, avoided contact with others, and delayed or canceled doctor’s appointments that weren’t critically important. The downside of those precautions is that typical childhood vaccinations have dipped.
Vaccinations across all childhood age groups, except for birth-dose hepatitis B vaccines, have declined in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Before 2019 about 67% of children aged five months and older were up-to-date on their vaccinations. In May 2020, it was less than half, 49.7 percent.
“It started plummeting when COVID first came on the scene in March, and then in May 2020 the vaccines for the measles, mumps, and rubella had dipped lower than the 2016 levels,” said Dr. Paul Entler, vice president of quality and performance improvement at Sparrow Hospital. “There’s some that have dipped below that herd immunity where we’re concerned about having a measles resurgence which would be very concerning given the contagiousness of the measles itself.”
Entler explained that COVID-19 is to blame in large part for the decline in childhood vaccinations but that financial and geographic factors also played a role. Without safe access to public transportation or low income clinics some families couldn't keep up with their children's vaccination schedule.
“When you look at just the state itself, down in southeast Michigan and the lower socioeconomic areas, and even in the less populated northeast Michigan, you see a lower percentage of those households that have gotten childhood vaccinations,” he said.
The decline spells trouble for this coming fall, when people will increasingly gather inside because of cooler temperatures, and for the school year.
“Certainly we’re gearing up here for a potential resurgence of some of the diseases,” Entler said. “If you add flu into the mix it could be a potential recipe to be very problematic for our population.”
According to Charlotte Public School District Superintendent Mandy Stewart, vaccination rates in the school district remain adequate.
“We’re pretty consistent, the majority of school districts especially in a public school district, it’s typically above 90 percent,” she said. “So there’s nothing unusual in our rates that we’re seeing right now.”
Stewart says that in preparation for the coming school year Charlotte Public Schools will maintain their cleaning requirements and follow any guidelines from the health department.
“We are hearing that there might be recommendations from the state level in August, and we start school in August so it might be that we’re going to have to be very flexible with whatever requirements we are told to do,” she said.
Any new requirements for students or school districts will come down from the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices which makes recommendations to the CDC.
“That committee recommends the recommended childhood immunization schedule. It is then up to every state to determine if they're going to mandate those vaccines or not. So the mandate is not at the federal level. It's at the state level,” said Ingham County Health Officer Linda Vail.
In Michigan, families can submit a waiver if they wish to not vaccinate their child, Vail said. There are medical, religious and philosophical waivers available to Michigan families but requirements for those waivers vary from state to state.
If a child has fallen behind on their vaccinations, Vail says it’s unlikely they will be turned away from school as long as they are working to get back on track.
Additionally, if there are large numbers of students who are behind on their vaccinations, immunization clinics can go mobile.
“There have been times in my career where I've had an especially large school district where a number of kids were not up to date with their vaccines and were about to be excluded from schools because they're not up to date with their vaccines so then we bring a vaccine clinic to that school to help them out,” she said. “We’ve got a whole summer to get people back on track.”