As states consider strategies to reopen schools safely this fall, ensuring that children receive their appropriate, on-schedule vaccines continues to be an important safety and prevention strategy. Because the COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically reduced the volume of in-person children’s preventive care visits across the country – many providers have reported a 70 to 80 percent decrease in well-child visits with fewer children receiving immunizations – catching children up on missed routine immunizations is critical, regardless of whether schools offer in-person instruction.
The American Academy of Pediatrics states that, “existing school immunization requirements should be maintained and not deferred because of the current pandemic,” and according to a 2014 study, vaccines will prevent 40,000 deaths and 20 million illnesses over the lifetimes of US children born in 2009. As a result, many school districts are implementing strategies that include immunizations along with other health priorities, like social distancing, mask wearing, and increased hygiene measures, for students in their back-to-school plans.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) priorities for the fall include catching children up on needed routine vaccinations and ensuring that adults and children get their annual flu shots to stay healthy and reduce the risk of coinfections and the burden on the health care system. CDC also recently released guidance to assist local public health agencies in establishing satellite vaccination clinics for routine vaccinations, including back-to-school immunizations and annual flu shots. Considering the immense pressures teachers and school administrators face as policymakers grapple with school reopening decisions, continuing to provide protection from preventable diseases is critical.
Keeping children protected from vaccine-preventable diseases is not contingent on in-person learning. States need to continue to plan for catch-up vaccinations even if states and school districts have not yet solidified their reopening plans amid rising national COVID-19 case counts, and children should have all necessary protections from vaccine-preventable diseases. However, because some states are requiring all schools to open, it is especially important to ensure there is a process for appropriate back-to-school vaccinations to be administered to keep children healthy. Several states and counties have already released back-to-school immunization plans:
- Hawaii: Effective July 1, 2020, additional immunizations will be required for students entering childcare facilities or schools. By the first day of school, all students entering childcare or school in Hawaii must have either a completed health record form or an appointment already scheduled with a health care provider, as well as a completed tuberculosis (TB) clearance form. Students who have not completed the requirements will not be allowed to attend school until the requirements are met. The updated immunization requirements were enacted prior to the pandemic to conform with national recommendations and reflect what already existed as standard medical care in Hawaii. State officials chose to maintain this guidance despite uncertainty from COVID-19.
- Michigan: Its Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) is urging families to catch their children up on needed vaccines that were postponed during the COVID-19 pandemic. Michigan providers are implementing new procedures to ensure patients can come in for well-child visits and get caught up on immunizations, including the flu vaccine, in the fall. Additionally, bipartisan legislation was introduced that requires proof of vaccination before entering 12th grade to ensure an accurate immunization status for high school students, and directs the DHHS to adopt the CDC-recommended immunization schedule.
- Texas: The state announced that school vaccination rules are in effect for the 2020-2021 school year that students should be up-to-date, or in the process of receiving their vaccinations, or have a valid exemption when school starts. Texas’ school vaccination rules are in effect regardless of where the education is received (on campus or via virtual learning).
- Oregon County: Oregon county health Departments began scheduling 2020-2021 school year catch-up immunizations during the summer to help limit the number of individuals in provider offices receiving vaccines at any one time, and to help prevent running out of supplies, because the department is only able to place new vaccine orders once a month.
In the midst of an uncertain infectious disease climate, states continue to prioritize maintaining immunization rates, and states can use back-to-school immunization requirements as a tool to ensure timely vaccine catch-up. However, vaccine requirements are a contentious issue and state legislatures across the nation continue to debate this topic. Prior to the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Colorado and Maine, for example, enacted new school entry immunization laws that created more stringent procedures for obtaining immunization exemptions. These states are working to prevent future outbreaks, considering the evidence that unvaccinated populations can lead to community outbreaks.
States will also need to consider strategies to ensure school-aged children will have equitable access to the COVID-19 vaccine when it becomes available. In Wisconsin, for example, both the state legislature and the Department of Health Services can add new vaccines, such as a potential new COVID-19 vaccine, to Wisconsin’s list of required vaccines for school children and children in childcare settings. Other states are taking preventive action to ensure they have a system in place for vaccine distribution when it is available. For example, New York amended a law authorizing licensed pharmacists to administer any approved vaccine for COVID-19 to include children between the ages of 2 and 18.
Schools are often under local jurisdictions and while considering federal guidance and local public health risk, most decisions will be made at the state and local levels. But, regardless of the variation, states have to make challenging decisions about reopening schools in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. One critical step they can take to ensure student’s health is prioritizing immunizations to ensure children are protected from preventable disease regardless of whether schools reopen in-person. The National Academy for State Health Policy will continue to monitor state back-to-school immunization policies, state efforts to keep children protected from vaccine-preventable diseases, and their implications for children.
This blog was written with support from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.