Although the school year has begun for many U.S. students, it’s not too late to help protect your school-aged children from COVID-19 and vaccine-preventable diseases.
With COVID-19 still disrupting so many aspects of our lives, it’s not surprising that a result of our altered routines is families missing well-child visits and routinely scheduled vaccines. By getting our families immunized, we can ensure that the health care system isn’t bogged down treating preventable diseases.
Although Colorado recently celebrated reaching a goal for kindergarten vaccine rates statewide, our local vaccination rates are below where they should be to prevent childhood disease outbreaks. Immunization rates in La Plata and Archuleta counties range among area schools from about 77% to 96% of children being up to date on vaccines required for school (data as of 2019). Most of these schools are well below the threshold of 95% needed for community immunity. While we have not had a measles outbreak in Colorado yet, public health experts believe that this could be on the horizon unless we increase vaccination rates.
Although there is more to keep track of this year, don’t forget your child’s routine immunizations, especially the MMR vaccine against measles, mumps and rubella. The MMR vaccine prevents contagious and potentially life-threatening diseases in children. Measles is contagious enough to infect up to 90% of the people close to that person who are not immune, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Data for the 2020-21 school year show decreases in both school and child care vaccination rates in children and teens during the COVID-19 pandemic. Almost all immunization rates for school-required vaccines fell among Colorado’s kindergartners, with coverage for polio and varicella falling under 90% – below the threshold of 95% needed for community immunity.
Some children have exemptions to attend school without having required vaccines. San Juan Basin Public Health encourages all parents to prioritize vaccinations for their children to protect them from deadly diseases while also protecting other children with serious health conditions who are unable to get vaccinated because of compromised health.
Equally important this year is making sure your family gets the flu vaccine. As we near flu season, health experts warn that the addition of another respiratory illness on top of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic could overburden the health care system, strain testing capacity and increase the risk of catching both maladies at once, making you more susceptible to serious health complications.
Each year, the flu vaccine contains three to four different strains of the disease that officials guess will be the ones most in circulation during the current season. Even when a flu vaccine is not an exact match to the strain that winds up being most common, it prompts the body to produce an immune response that will limit the severity of a person’s sickness.
Everyone older than 6 months should get a flu vaccine each flu season with rare exceptions, according to the CDC. Although some may have concerns about exposure to COVID-19, doctor’s offices and other vaccine providers are working hard to ensure that it’s safe to visit them for vaccines and other care.
Currently, flu shots are widely available at pharmacies, grocery stores or your doctor’s office. Young children can get flu vaccines at their doctor’s office or at SJBPH as soon as they are available (pharmacies rarely provide vaccines for children under 8 years of age). Check with your pediatrician’s office or SJBPH for when a flu vaccine is available for your child.
Also, talk to your child’s doctor about scheduling routine vaccinations such as MMR, or call SJBPH’s Immunizations Clinic (335-2013) if you don’t have a primary care physician. School-required vaccines and schedules can be found at https://sjbpublichealth.org/immunizations/.
In order to support in-person learning for students, SJBPH also encourages all who are eligible to receive the lifesaving COVID-19 vaccine as soon as possible. Find a local vaccine clinic or provider at https://sjbpublichealth.org/covid-19-vaccine/.
SJBPH appreciates all the efforts made by people in our communities to help control the spread of COVID-19 through diligent public health precautions. We hope that you will add getting back-to-school and flu vaccines to your list of steps you’re taking to keep everyone safe and healthy as we all make our way through the unique challenges of this pandemic.
Liane Jollon is executive director of San Juan Basin Public Health.