Guard our community immunity by getting kids vaccinated

USAF / Angelique M. Perez
. Dr. Nathan Chomilo

Do you remember what life was like this time last year? We didn’t have any blockbuster movies to see in theaters. No live music. Most people were not able to get married with all their friends and family in attendance, gather together at church, send their kids to camp, or catch a Twins or Loons game in the stadium.

Sure, we had the DMX vs. Snoop Dogg and Brandy vs. Monica Verzuz battles, but it was a markedly different time. Summer 2021 has been brought to us by the amazingly safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines.

Last year, I eagerly hyped their arrival, and they have not disappointed. As our children prepare to return to school in this new phase of the global COVID-19 pandemic, it is important we don’t let other childhood illnesses pop off. The Minnesota Department of Health looked at vaccine coverage rates over the last few years and noted that many children and adolescents have fallen behind on regularly recommended immunizations during the pandemic.

This is especially concerning because if immunization rates drop too low we lose “herd” or “community”
immunity, which helps protect those who are too young, old, or unable to get a shot. This puts us at risk for
outbreaks of other infectious diseases like measles, whooping cough, and the like. The diseases these other vaccines prevent may not be top of mind these days, but they are real and they can be serious.

There are also racial and ethnic disparities noted in the immunization rates, as well as more pronounced
gaps if a child lives in a ZIP code with a high social vulnerability index score, a marker of historical underinvestment and structural racism. When we look at immunization rates for tetanus and whooping cough and meningitis among Black teenagers in Minnesota, we see they are currently below the federal government’s 2030 Healthy People Coverage goals.

Whooping cough

Pertussis, or “whooping cough,” is a bacterium that affects the lungs, first looking like a cold with sneezing, runny nose, and a low-grade fever that turns into an ongoing, severe cough. People with pertussis can cough so hard and long that they stop getting enough oxygen, which can lead to them passing out or suffocating without medical attention. It is especially serious in infants, children less than one year old.

It is spread mostly from coughing and sneezing and not just breathing. Protection from whooping cough is
in the DTaP series of shots that start at two months of age and require booster shots throughout your life.

Starting at age 11 it is recommended children get a Tdap booster shot, and then every 10 years after their first Tdap booster (unless pregnant or in a significant accident—then it is recommended sooner).

Meningitis

Neisseria meningitis is a rare bacterial infection that can rapidly progress to severe illness or death even with treatment. Teens and young adults are among those who are at most risk from infection. Ten to 15% of those infected will die from it, and another almost 20% will end up with severe complications like brain damage, hearing loss, or even requiring amputation of an arm or leg.

The bacteria is spread through contact with someone’s spit through coughing, kissing, sharing food or
drinks, or even cosmetics. It is highly contagious. Outbreaks have been noted in schools, college dorms, military barracks, sports teams, and prisons among other settings.

Vaccination is protective from severe illness. A first dose is recommended at 11 years of age and a
booster at 16 years old.

COVID-19

COVID-19 is still a threat to our teenagers as we continue to see it spread in our community. While they
are less likely to die from COVID-19 than our elders, they are still at risk from suffering from illness, hospitalization, and long-term side effects from even mild infections like fatigue, shortness of breath, and depression.

Students who aren’t vaccinated may also need to get tested more frequently and would need to stay home (quarantine) if they are exposed to someone who has COVID-19. This means not being vaccinated could keep our teens out of school, sports, or other activities for significant chunks of time, risking missing important assignments, social activities, or parts of their athletic seasons.

With school starting in a few weeks, it is critical we get our students age 12 years and older vaccinated right now. In-person learning is critical to a child’s well-being and academic success. Getting kids vaccinated is the best way to keep our students safe and healthy while they are in school.

Cost shouldn’t be a barrier

COVID-19 vaccines continue to be free for all children and adults, whether they have health insurance or not. For other recommended vaccines, free or low-cost shots for children are available through the Minnesota Vaccines for Children program. This program provides vaccines for 50% of children in the U.S. and provides free or low-cost vaccines to children who don’t have health insurance or whose insurance does not cover the cost of vaccines.

Most pediatric clinics in Minnesota participate in this program, so just ask your provider or visit Free or Low-Cost Shots for Children at the web address below. Talk to your child’s health care provider about what vaccines they need.

They can get the COVID-19 vaccine on the same day they get other recommended vaccines. The last 18 months have been historically challenging, and the return of many of the activities that connect and bind our community has been a breath of much-needed fresh air. However, these gains for our children can be lost if we don’t guard our community immunity. Worse, we risk seeing an outbreak of another preventable infectious disease on top of COVID-19.

I’m down for a(nother) rematch of the Swizz Beatz vs. Timbaland VERZUZ, but not a COVID-19 vs. whooping cough matchup.

For Free or Low-Cost Shots for Children, visit www.health.state.mn.us/
people/immunize/basics/howpay.html

Dr. Nathan T. Chomilo is the medical director for the State of Minnesota’s Medicaid/Medical Assistance & MinnesotaCare programs and practices as a general pediatrician in Brooklyn Center with Park Nicollet. He is a board member of the Minnesota Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics and an adjunct assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Minnesota Medical School. He is currently also serving as the State of Minnesota’s COVID-19 vaccine equity director in the Department of Health. He lives in Minneapolis with his wife and son.

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