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Rutgers professor explains importance of keeping children's vaccinations up to date during pandemic

Joseph Schwab, associate professor in the Department of Pediatrics at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, said a decrease in vaccinations could result in other disease outbreaks amid the pandemic, putting stress on hospital resources and making it more difficult for people to receive care. – Photo by Partnership for Maternal and Child Health of Northern NJ / Facebook

Joseph Schwab, associate professor in the Department of Pediatrics at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, spoke on the importance of keeping children up to date with vaccinations during the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic. 

“We are able to look at the number of doses ordered from the Vaccines for Children program, and we know that the number of doses ordered and used in that program dropped in March and April,” he said.

Schwab said that since many doctors’ offices and health departments were closed, they were not able to offer immunizations during the spring months. Even after offices reopened, he said some families were reluctant to come in and some offices were operating on a reduced schedule.

Immunizations are still important in maintaining a healthy population, though, he said. Vaccines help protect individuals from serious diseases, which we have seen outbreaks for in recent years, such as the 2019 measles outbreak in New York City, Schwab said.

“Not all of these diseases that we vaccinate for are gone,” Schwab said. “We’re still counting on the protection that the vaccine offers to keep kids from getting those diseases.”

The consequences of failing to get immunizations are outbreaks of diseases and in some cases, hospitalizations, Schwab said. 

“If there are outbreaks of these diseases and there are kids that need hospital space, at the same time that maybe there’s an increased need for hospital beds for (COVID-19), that can put hospitals in an even bigger crunch and make it more difficult for people to receive the healthcare that they need,” he said.

In regards to how an overall decrease in vaccinations can impact the current pandemic, Schwab said it might affect the number of resources available to treat COVID-19, as well as other potential epidemics or outbreaks occurring at the same time.

Schwab said he thinks the biggest threat in terms of overwhelming the healthcare system is the flu. “If people aren’t vaccinated against the flu, there's a lot of susceptible people who could get infected and could require hospital care, including up to intensive care,” he said.

Schwab also discussed the ways that doctors' offices work to ensure it is safe for parents to bring their children for vaccinations. 

“What we do is we try to spread out our visits and limit the number of people that might be coming in at any one time, so that here’s not a backlog in the waiting room,” he said. 

Schwab said that in addition to typical mask-wearing and temperature check precautions, sick adults are asked not to come in, and instead to send their child with an adult who is well. 

He said they also try to limit and space out sick visits — such as only doing well visits in the morning and sick visits in the evening — to decrease exposure to younger children who are healthy.

Schwab said that many practices are also transitioning to telephone or video visits, dubbing them “e-health.” He said this allows them to diagnose minor illnesses by video instead of having them come into the office.

He added that extra care is taken to decontaminate all surfaces between visits. Additionally, if parents are still uncomfortable with bringing their children to the doctor’s office, they could receive a vaccination at a local pharmacy. 

In regards to how parents should ensure their child is up to date on their immunizations, Schwab said parents should be aware of their child’s vaccine schedule. He said that parents can check websites like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and ask their doctors to make sure their children are not due for any visits. 

“The best practice would be for the provider to give all the vaccines that a child is eligible for at any visit. One way a parent could help that happens is ask, ‘Does my child need any other vaccines today? And can I please get them all today?’” Schwab said.

With flu season quickly approaching, Schwab said he hopes that children will get their vaccinations and stay protected.

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