Keeping Kids, Families, and Communities Safe as Children are Back to School

Getting vaccinated (Photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)

Starting school is traditionally an exciting time for parents, teachers and educators. As New York City returns to school this month after COVID-19 isolates children from classmates and in many cases disrupts routine doctor visits, experts fear the population will have lower immunity and fall behind with routine vaccinations.

The city continues to work its way out of the pandemic, sponsoring “back-to-school surveys.” Let’s make sure the whole family is up to date on their immunizations and health needs.

If your child has not had a check-up in the past year, you should make an appointment with your pediatrician. In addition to ensuring the child is up to date on immunizations, we assess growth and development, nutritional status, and behavioral, developmental, and psychosocial issues that may impact school performance. Schools and public health officials are reminding parents to educate their children on recommended childhood immunizations or risk the real threat of diseases returning after they’ve mostly been eliminated.

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Since the pandemic, vaccination rates have fallen and have yet to recover, putting school-age children at risk. In the 2020-2021 school year, U.S. kindergarten immunization coverage decreased by one percentage point compared to the previous school yearfound the CDCand infant vaccination rates also declined between 2019 and 2020.

New Yorkers remember there was a measles outbreak in Brooklyn in 2019, and we’re seeing cases rising across the country and around the world; We are seeing the return of these and other diseases once thought to be eradicated. Worldwide measles cases increased by 79% for the first two months of 2022 compared to 2021. In addition, New York State health officials confirmed the first case of polio in the United States in nearly a decade in Rockland County and another in New York City.

Pandemic restrictions and virtual education reduced children’s risk of contracting measles, mumps, rubella and other communicable diseases, and masking, testing and contact tracing helped prevent Covid and other diseases from spreading faster in classrooms. However, the arrival of the more contagious subvariant Omicron underscored how quickly things could change significantly, as schools can be hotbeds for community spread. For example, in March, schools in Los Angeles experienced a spring flu outbreak that caused school administrators to close the school for personal visits.

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Covid vaccination rates are lagging among teenagers and children. Unfortunately, we are now struggling with more vaccination hesitations. Vaccination is more important than ever, especially as we see polio detections. A Kaiser Family Foundation survey found that more than four out of ten parents do not vaccinate their children under the age of five against the COVID-19 virus. However, herd immunity of 95% or greater is required to protect against measles, and when vaccination rates fall, especially in local communities or schools, outbreaks are possible.

When our schools begin to return to normal, our city cannot handle a massive polio outbreak that could disrupt our children’s education. However, according to a CDC analysis, Vaccination protection against measles for kindergarten teachers was 93.9% nationwide in the 2020/21 school year. Public statistics show that nearly 14% of young New York children have not received a polio vaccine. To protect our schools and our children, parents need to make sure their children are vaccinated.

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We all want a “normal” school year after the last 2+ years in a pandemic, but we need everyone to do their part. For this reason, we urge families to remember to vaccinate their children to protect them and their families from outbreaks. We must all work together to make this school year magical.

dr Andrea Perry, MD, MBA Pediatrician, is Medical Director at EmblemHealth. On twitter @EmblemHealth.

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