In a hidden consequence of the coronavirus pandemic that public health experts find alarming, 16% of parents say their children haven’t received all the vaccinations recommended by their pediatricians, because COVID-19 has made scheduling inconvenient or impossible.
The findings, from a national Harris Poll conducted exclusively for Fast Company, suggest that yet another public health crisis could be running parallel to the pandemic.
That rate of parents delaying vaccination for pandemic-related reasons tips a little higher for male respondents than female ones—19% versus 11%.
All these percentages are likely low, as the difference between what people say and what they actually do is often stark.
Before the outbreak, 64% of parents said their children got all or most of their vaccines on schedule and another 17% said the same thing, but not always on schedule, according to the Harris Poll.
Routine childhood immunizations protect against illnesses, such as polio, measles, mumps, rubella, and whooping cough.
Data from individual states and cities have also shown that COVID-19 has compromised immunization rates. For example, in California, the number of vaccines administered to children from newborns through 18 years of age plummeted by more than 40%, and New York City’s vaccination rate dropped 63%. Michigan saw its percentage of 5-month-old babies who are up-to-date on their vaccines drop from an estimated two-thirds to less than half in May, and only 53.1% of kids 19 months to 35 months in the state were fully immunized.
“It’s a potential public health crisis,” Dr. Megan Tschudy, assistant professor of pediatrics at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, says of the findings. “It’s another layer of unintended consequences of COVID. There are so many levels. People are not taking care of routine things, too. It’s a concern many of us have.”
Kids’ immunizations could be behind schedule during the pandemic for any number of reasons, she explains: A fear of contracting COVID-19, concerns about overburdening the healthcare systems with well visits, shuttered doctors’ offices, lack of mass transit options to get to pediatrician appointments, Medicaid enrollment issues, school-based health center closures, families left without health insurance due to parents’ recent unemployment, and a lack of appointments at local health departments that have redeployed resources to COVID-19.
“Real risks” for schools
The Harris Poll survey was conducted between July 24 and 27, just as local and federal leaders began to politicize school openings.
Being behind on immunizations can conflagrate into a huge issue when too many kids heading back to classrooms in the fall aren’t fully vaccinated. According to the survey, 52% of parents said they would consider taking their sons and daughters out of school if vaccination rates drop significantly at their kids’ school. Another 26% said they definitely would take them out, while only 22% said they’d let them continue attending school.
“There are real risks to not getting vaccines over time and [with] more kids going back to school, the thought of an outbreak is something people are thinking about,” Tschudy points out. “You want to keep kids on schedule. We made a schedule for a reason.”
In May, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a study showing that routine pediatric vaccinations had gone down after a national state of emergency was declared on March 13. The American Academy of Pediatrics responded by calling the trend “incredibly worrisome” and urging parents not to delay getting their kids vaccinated.
According to experts, pediatricians are working to make their offices feel safe for parents by doing more frequent deep cleans, scheduling well visits and sick visits at different times of the day, setting up tents to do vaccinations, administering vaccines in parked cars, and hosting vaccination-only days at their offices.
“Now is a great day to start over. My advice for everyone would be to call your pediatricians’ offices,” Tschudy says.
Too “freaked out” to go anywhere
Erin Salter, a stay-at-home mom in San Jose, California, delayed bringing her daughters, ages 4 and 6, to their pediatrician for their immunizations. Though the medical office was closed for well visits, she was also anxious about her love-to-touch-everything-and-put-items-in-their-mouths girls and COVID-19. Salter finally brought them in late July.
“I was a little freaked out to go out anywhere,” Salter says. “I was very worried they would catch it and spread it to someone who’d be more vulnerable. I’m not vulnerable from any preconditions, but I have a terrible history of catching every bug that passes through San Jose. I was convinced if I take the kids out, bad things would happen.”
What the fall will bring remains a key question, especially if the girls’ classmates aren’t immunized as recommended. For example, one of Salter’s friends has a child who was recently in the hospital. Another has three children, no childcare help, and a pediatrician who lets only two kids in the office at a time.
Erin Salter, parent
I was very worried they would catch it and spread it to someone who’d be more vulnerable.”
“I would definitely seriously consider [or] go with a full year of distance learning,” she says. “If your pediatrician is open, you should go in for your vaccines. The other viruses are also horrible. If we all don’t go in, we’re going to lose herd immunity and all these other diseases might rear their heads.”
The Fast Company-Harris Poll data found that the number of parents opposing vaccines due to concerns about health risks has increased since COVID-19 began too. Before the pandemic, it was 7%. Now it’s 9%.
“Most people are community-minded or believe in science. They support vaccinations for infectious diseases. But the minority of anti-vaxxers seems to be growing,” Harris researchers explain.
Scheduling issues also prevented 10% of grownups from getting vaccines they needed, like tetanus, flu, pneumonia, and shingles, the Harris Poll reveals. Fifty percent of people surveyed said that before the pandemic, they got all or most of the recommended shots for adults on time, while another 13% said they get all or most, but not always on schedule.
The survey was conducted online within the U.S. by the Harris Poll on behalf of Fast Company among a nationally representative sample of 1,013 American adults. This poll is not based on a probability sample, so no estimate of theoretical sampling error can be calculated.