As Americans eagerly anticipate a COVID-19 vaccine, there’s troubling new evidence that they’re failing to get inoculated against other infectious diseases.
To get vaccination rates back where they need to be, policymakers must remind the public of the importance of routine immunizations and remove the regulatory barriers that make it difficult for people to get their shots.
A recent study of patients in Michigan found a significant reduction in vaccinations among all age groups. As of late May, fewer than half of the state’s five-month-old children had received all recommended vaccinations. In previous years, that figure was well over 65%.
In New York City, the number of vaccine doses administered through May dropped 63% compared to the same period last year. For children two and older, vaccination doses were down 91%.
The decline in measles vaccination rates is especially problematic. The Michigan study found that the share of 15-month-olds who received their measles shots decreased from 76.1% in May 2019 to 70.9% in May 2020.
Michigan’s experience is not atypical. An analysis of records from 1,000 private pediatricians across the country found a 50% drop in measles vaccinations between February 16 – before the coronavirus lockdowns began – and April 5.
We can ill afford such declines. Just last year, an outbreak in New York almost caused the country to lose its measles elimination status.
To some extent, falling vaccination rates are an understandable, if misguided, response to pandemic. Many patients and their families feared contracting the coronavirus if they ventured out into public or visited a health care facility. In some places, patients were actively dissuaded from seeking routine medical care so health care professionals could focus on the coronavirus.
Even when patients and their families felt comfortable going to the doctor’s office, they may have struggled to get an appointment. Scores of pediatricians and primary-care physicians have reduced hours because of plummeting demand and extended gaps between patients in order to effectively sanitize their clinics.
The pernicious influence of the nation’s anti-vaccination movement also deserves blame. Even in the face of COVID-19, an astonishing number of Americans remain skeptical of vaccines. According to one recent survey, only 49% of the country plans to get inoculated against the novel coronavirus once a vaccine becomes available.
Any policy response to the decline in vaccination rates has to start with education. Americans must understand that vaccines aren’t just safe and effective – they are absolutely essential. This means that, unlike dining out or going to the movies, routine vaccinations aren’t luxuries that can be dispensed with during quarantine.
Reforms that make it easier for patients to get vaccinated are just as important. For example, states can give pharmacists the power to dispense routine shots independently. Most states only allow them to do so with a physician’s prescription or according to a protocol established by a physician or institution.
Rolling back these rules would make routine immunizations far more convenient – especially given that nine in ten Americans live within five miles of a pharmacy.
And when a COVID-19 vaccine becomes available, these newly empowered pharmacists could help ensure that the breakthrough reaches patients quickly and on a massive scale.
People can’t let the coronavirus stop them from getting inoculated against the likes of measles, mumps and rubella. Our nation can ill afford a resurgence of preventable diseases like these while we’re struggling to manage an outbreak of one for which we don’t yet have a vaccine.
Sally C. Pipes is president, CEO, and the Thomas W. Smith fellow in healthcare policy at the Pacific Research Institute. Her latest book is “False Premise, False Promise: The Disastrous Reality of Medicare for All” (Encounter 2020). You can follow her on Twitter: @sallypipes.