LANSING, Mich. – Michigan's health department is urging that children be caught up on their vaccines as soon as possible after a drop in immunizations due to the cancellation of appointments during the coronavirus pandemic.
The state said the percentage of 5-month-olds fully up to date on all recommended vaccines was less than half in May, down from about two-thirds in recent years. Vaccination coverage declined in almost every other milestone age cohort below age 2, according to a study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, the state's chief medical executive and chief deputy health director, said it is concerning that so many children are behind, making them susceptible to preventable diseases. Health care providers are putting in place safety procedures to ensure patients can come in for well visits and immunizations, she said.
“Vaccines are essential,” Khaldun said. The flu vaccine will be vital for anyone age 6 months and older this fall to keep people out of the hospital for flu-related illnesses and to protect the health system's capacity during the pandemic, she said.
In March, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer ordered restrictions on nonessential medical procedures to reduce the strain on the health system as COVID-19 cases peaked, which contributed to delays in routine appointments — as did people's fears and adherence to stay-at-home restrictions. She lifted the medical order about two months later.
The pandemic-related drop in immunizations comes at a time health experts already are sounding the alarm about a slight dip in Michigan's vaccination rates over the past two years. The percentage of fully immunized toddlers was 73.9% last year, down from 75% in 2017, according to an analysis done by the Michigan League for Public Policy and Data Driven Detroit.
The U.S. last year saw the most measles cases in 27 years. Michigan has had measles, whooping cough, mumps and meningitis cases in recent years despite there being vaccines.
“Herd immunity protects everyone from contagious diseases, but the exact rate of immunity to protect a population varies depending on the disease, so any dip in vaccinations is a threat,” said Kelsey Perdue, project director for Kids Count in Michigan.
Michigan - one of 45 states to let K-12 students forgo vaccine requirements for religious reasons — is among 15 states to also allow a philosophical exemption. The state's kindergarten waiver rate, 4.5%, has improved in recent years due to a policy change but remains above the national average of 2.5%.
Bipartisan legislation introduced last month would require proof of vaccinations before entering 12th grade — not just kindergarten and 7th grade — as a way to ensure an accurate immunization status for high school students. The bills also would direct the state Department of Health and Human Services to write rules adopting, by reference, the immunization schedule recommended by a CDC council.
The proposed move could be a factor if a COVID-19 vaccine is developed and required, for instance.
"COVID-19 reminds us every day of the importance of immunizations, and the tragic loss of life that can occur when they are not available or utilized,” said the bills' main sponsor, Democratic Sen. Curtis Hertel Jr. of East Lansing. "This legislation is a critical tool to ensure students are protected when they return to the classroom.”
The number of confirmed cases of the coronavirus (COVID-19) in Michigan has risen to 68,295 as of Saturday morning, including 6,039 deaths, state officials report.