MANKATO — While the wait for a COVID-19 vaccine continues, local doctors are reminding parents to stay up to date on routine vaccinations for their children.
Fears about the pandemic could be causing fewer Minnesota parents to seek immunizations during well-child visits. U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar recently shared how Minnesota has had a 70% decrease in childhood measles vaccines compared to the previous year.
After seeing a similar downturn in well-child visits early in the pandemic, Mankato doctors say parents shouldn’t hesitate to bring their children in for immunizations.
“One of the issues or concerns during the pandemic is everyone is rightly focusing closely on the coronanvirus, but they forget how many communicable diseases are still prevalent in our communities,” said Dr. Graham King, a family medicine physician at Mayo Clinic Health System in Mankato.
Well-child visits at Mayo in Mankato picked up again once Gov. Tim Walz lifted Minnesota’s shelter in place order. For parents who fear being exposed to COVID-19 at clinics, King said they should know the safety protocols in medical settings are on another level than those in place at grocery stores and restaurants.
“If you come to a clinic, that is social distancing and protection on steroids,” he said.
Mankato Clinic also had a drop in well-child visits in late March and early April. Appointments rebounded soon after and are now about in line with last year’s immunization numbers, said Dr. Katie Smentek, a pediatrician at Mankato Clinic.
Canceled appointments started picking up again during the last week or so, however, due to patients being exposed to COVID-19 in the community. New cases have skyrocketed in the Mankato area over the last two weeks, increasing the exposure risks for everyone in the community.
With safety measures in place at the clinic, Smentek said now is a prime time for parents to schedule well-child appointments.
“It’s going to be harder come fall with cold and flu season,” she said. “We’re in a nice sweet spot right now.”
Children need certain vaccinations to attend school unless they have exemptions. Waiting until closer to when school starts for immunizations could increase the burden on the health system, King said.
“The best thing you can do is keep on track,” he said. “Keep on schedule and get them done in the appropriate time.”
Mankato Area Public Schools sends out reminders to parents about required immunizations, said Heather Hedin, a licensed school nurse. Parents of incoming kindergartners and seventh-graders get special messages because the younger students need their measles, mumps and rubella, polio, Tdap and other vaccines, while the older students need tetanus and meningococcal vaccines.
Incoming seniors were supposed to receive their second round of meningococcal vaccines starting this school year. The requirement is now pushed back to the 2020-2021 calendar.
It’s hard to tell how much of an impact the slowdown in well-child visits will have on schools, Hedin said. Among the many considerations the state needs to figure out before schools resume is how to handle students behind on their immunizations.
Hedin echoed the doctors’ recommendations in advising parents not to forget about routine vaccines. She also said keeping students home when sick will be even more crucial once schools resume.
“We really want to focus on what is preventable,” she said. “We don’t have a vaccine for COVID yet, but we do have vaccines for these other diseases that can be just as detrimental to a child’s health if they catch it.”
For younger children, vaccinations become especially important once newborns reach 2 months old, King said. Newborns have quite a bit of immune system protection for their first months, especially if they’re breastfed, but become more susceptible to exposures afterward.
Immunization schedules call for newborns to receive their first dose of hepatitis B vaccines at birth and their second at one to two months. The two-month mark also signals when they could start receiving other routine vaccines for rotavirus and other diseases.
Health professionals also are already reminding parents to seek the influenza vaccine this year. Reducing influenza risk, they say, could be more important than ever due to the likely overlap of COVID-19 and influenza strains.