Pediatricians across Virginia are reporting a decline in vaccination rates as the COVID-19 pandemic continues — a worrying trend that many fear will lead to future outbreaks of otherwise preventable infectious diseases.
A recent survey of more than 100 pediatric providers shows that infant vaccination rates have decreased by 30 percent since early March when Virginia reported its first known case of disease, said Dr. Sandy Chung, a Northern Virginia-based pediatrician and president of the state chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Adolescent vaccination rates are down 76 percent, Chung added. The state’s Department of Health has seen a similar decline in reports to the Virginia Immunization Information System, a statewide registry where physicians can enter vaccination data. From March 15 to April 23, vaccines reported to the system declined 45.7 percent compared to the same time period last year, according to Christy Gray, director of the department’s Division of Immunization.
As a result, many infants could be left vulnerable to diseases including whooping cough, bacterial meningitis and measles. Older children aren’t receiving routine boosters against tetanus and other bacterial illnesses, or scheduled immunizations against human papillomavirus, which can cause cervical, oral, and penile cancers.
“We’re worried that this could present problems on the other side of the pandemic,” said Dr. Paige Perriello, a pediatrician based in Charlottesville. “These are serious infections, and there’s concern that this is going to cause problems in the months to come.”
As coronavirus cases in Virginia continue to rise (with a total of 11,594 reported on Friday), Gov. Ralph Northam has extended measures to prevent the risk of transmission and preserve needed medical equipment. Many business closures have been extended through May 8. Virginia’s stay-at-home order remains active until June 10. And on Thursday, Northam announced that he would extend the state’s ban on elective surgeries for another week.
Medical providers say that the orders have led to confusion among some Virginians over what they can and cannot do during the pandemic. Emergency room utilization has declined across the state as more residents follow directions to stay at home. The decrease is partially due to a reduction in roadway crashes and other accidents, but there’s also concern that some people are avoiding treatment for heart attacks, appendicitis and other legitimate medical emergencies, Dr. Clifford Deal, president of the Medical Society of Virginia, said in an interview on Thursday.
The overall number of pediatric visits has also declined by 40 to 50 percent, Perriello estimated. Chung said that there have been fewer sick visits for some illnesses, such as seasonal flu and strep throat, as children stay home from school and daycare centers. But wellness visits have also decreased, with some parents worrying that leaving the house could put their children at risk of contracting COVID-19.
The Virginia Mercury is a new, nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization covering Virginia government and policy.