Jesus Manjares, 13, right, receives his first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine Monday, July 12, 2021, at a free COVID-19 mobile clinic at Silvia’s Professional Taxes in Sunnyside, Wash.

As the new school year draws near, it’s time for kids to get caught up on childhood immunizations — especially since new state data shows many fell behind in 2020.

Preteens were the most concerning age group, with 11- and 12-year-olds statewide seeing an 11% decrease in uptake of the Tdap (tetanus, diphtheria and whooping cough) vaccine from 2019 to 2020, as well as an 8.4% decrease in the meningococcal vaccine, data showed.

While Yakima County maintained a higher rate of immunization among this age group compared to the state average — with 52.4% receiving their Tdap vaccine compared to 49.2% statewide, for example — it saw a larger decline in uptake from 2019 to 2020. There were 16.1% fewer 11- and 12-year-olds with Tdap vaccinations and 14% fewer with meningococcal vaccines in the county in 2020 than the year prior.

Several immunizations are required for children in the state to attend child care or school. Washington immunization rules tightened two years ago, eliminating personal belief exemptions to the measles, mumps and rubella vaccination in response to a state outbreak of measles in 2019 that contributed to the greatest number of cases of the virus nationally since 1992, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The highly contagious airborne virus had been declared eliminated in the U.S. in 2000, but pockets of low immunization rates allowed it to resurface.

Yakima County continues to be among counties with the highest childhood immunization rates in the state, but still falls below the state and national goals that 80% of individuals complete all vaccines recommended for their age group.

“I’m concerned about how many of our Washington kids are vulnerable to serious but preventable diseases,” acting assistant secretary of the state Department of Health Michele Roberts said in a Monday news release. “We need to get children caught up now on vaccines they missed. They are heading back to school soon, and flu activity often picks up in the fall, so let’s get them protected before they’re exposed.”

Making appointments

Dr. Roy Simms, a pediatric doctor in Yakima for roughly 40 years, said the need for youths to pursue immunizations was reflected both locally and nationally. In his experience, he said, the problem was caused by a decline in parents scheduling and attending doctor visits since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, rather than a reluctance to vaccinate.

Simms, who practices at Yakima Pediatrics, said this is concerning because vaccinations are vital in order to prevent outbreaks and severe illness.

While Simms said there had been a significant dip in appointments in the early months of the pandemic, he said the numbers were improving. August is generally when clinics see a surge of parents making appointments for their kids in order to get vaccinated ahead of the new school year, he said. This is especially true for children entering pre-K or kindergarten and sixth grade, which both have vaccine requirements for kids to attend school.

COVID-19 vaccines and youths

Dr. Simms is also having conversations with kids and their parents about COVID-19 vaccines. He said while initial vaccination efforts centered around mass vaccine clinics, the responsibility for continued community vaccination has shifted to primary care doctors who can have conversations with their patients about what is best.

“In the provider community, now we know that one-by-one patient interaction is where we’re going to have our best effort for increasing our numbers,” he said. “It’s a lot slower than it was before.”

In practice, he said, that means regardless of what a patient comes to see him for, he asks if they have been vaccinated against COVID-19 if they are over 12 years old, making them eligible for the Pfizer vaccine under emergency use.

If the patient is not yet vaccinated against the virus, Simms offers to provide a dose during the same appointment. He also hopes that his conversations empower individuals to talk with others in their community — from family to friends and neighbors — advocating for vaccination. Sometimes this means encouraging conversation between parents and their children.

“Anything that we can do to improve the health of our community, we should all be doing,” he said.

Simms said this includes both having kids mask and vaccinate. Considering that children under 12 can’t be vaccinated against COVID-19, he said masking remains important. For those who can be vaccinated, he said it’s the wise thing to do.

Countywide, 30% of youths 12-17 had initiated vaccination as of Aug. 4, while 22.2% were fully vaccinated against COVID-19, according to the state Department of Health.

Simms said the vaccine is 95% effective. At the same time, the long-term impacts of COVID-19 infections are still unfolding, an uncertainty for those left unvaccinated that gives him concern.

“That unknown makes me wish that we could stomp it out and move on. But we’re not going to move on if we don’t stomp it out,” he said, pointing to continued vaccination as a key measure to prevent the virus from mutating further.

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