Vaccination rates among CT schoolchildren drop amid COVID-19

Experts fear disease outbreaks if trend continues

Vials of measles, mumps and rubella vaccine sit in a cooler at the Rockland County Health Department in Pomona, N.Y. in March 2019

Vials of measles, mumps and rubella vaccine sit in a cooler at the Rockland County Health Department in Pomona, N.Y. in March 2019

Seth Wenig / Associated Press

New data from the state Department of Public Health shows the percent of schoolchildren vaccinated to protect against a variety of long standing diseases dropped during COVID-19, following years of steady decline in the share of K-12 students who received state-mandated immunizations. 

The state data showed the rate of students who were vaccinated against several diseases such as polio, measles, and tetanus. It did not include data on the vaccination rates against COVID-19, which is not a required vaccine in Connecticut schools.

Experts and state education officials attributed the drop in immunizations to difficulty in securing medical appointments and growing vaccine hesitancy. 

Overall, the rate of vaccination against those several diseases hovered between 95 percent and 96 percent for the 2020-2021 school year depending on the vaccine, down by as much as a point compared to the school year before the pandemic began, and a decline from a high of 97 percent during the 2012-13 school year, the earliest year for which data is available.

That percentage decrease might seem small, and indeed Connecticut’s overall vaccination rate still remains above the national average by as much as two points. But, Dr. John Schreiber, medical director of infection control at Connecticut Children’s Medical Center in Hartford, said even modest declines are cause for concern. 

“I would be worried if our excellent vaccination rate declines further, that we will have outbreaks in Connecticut, and that children will get hurt and some could die,” he said. “We can avoid it. It's just not necessary.”

The state data, collected during the fall and released in early May, is based on vaccination rates of kindergarteners and 7th graders because children in those grades are typically at the age when they’re due for different rounds of vaccines.

The data showed the immunization rate declined more for certain types of vaccines.

The greatest declines in vaccination rates were recorded in 7th graders’ uptake of the Tdap shot — a booster dose to prevent against tetanus, diphtheria and whooping cough — as well as the meningococcal, also known as MCV, vaccine which protects against bacteria that can cause meningitis.

Schreiber said a dropoff in acceptance of the measles vaccine is of particular cause for concern.

Falling below a rate of 95 percent for the measles vaccine specifically would be alarming, Schreiber said.

Connecticut’s measles vaccination rate stands exactly at 95 percent for kindergarteners. The national rate is just below 94 percent, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Schreiber noted measles is highly contagious and is rapidly spreading in other parts of the world; UNICEF reported on May 4 that 21 “large and disruptive” measles outbreaks have been reported worldwide. Schreiber said parents need to remember not to take the United States’ decades-long access to vaccines for granted.

A spokesman for the state Department of Public Health said the agency believes parents had a hard time securing the needed appointments during the pandemic’s earliest months, when many restrictions were in place.

“What we have seen nationally as well as here in CT is that many adolescent visits were postponed due to the pandemic so the vaccination rates for Tdap and Meningoccal have consequently declined,” Chris Boyle, a spokesman for the agency, said in a statement. “We have worked with our medical partners … to identify those adolescents behind on their vaccines to get them caught up on their missing vaccinations.”

The state health agency noted some schools may have struggled to collect accurate data during the pandemic, which may factor into why immunization rates dropped.

Boyle said the agency is not expecting higher rates of children out of compliance with vaccine mandates during the upcoming year, and is not conducting any targeted outreach. He said vaccination rates can improve during the year, as some kids received their vaccines late.

Schreiber said vaccine misinformation that has taken hold during the COVID-19 pandemic is likely contributing to declining vaccination rates. 

“There is an undercurrent of anti-vaccine propaganda that has affected our routine immunizations, and it's very important that we push back,” he said. 

Dr. Ho-Choong Chang, chief of pediatrics with Community Health Center, Inc., a large network of health clinics across Connecticut, said during the first year of the pandemic, the organization focused on ensuring infants didn’t fall behind on their needed vaccinations. 

“It was an incredibly challenging time for pediatricians to remain accessible to families,” he said. “We were, like many clinics, trying to be mindful about balancing access against infection control.”

The situation has since improved, Chang said, leaving parents with options to get their children up to date with the needed vaccines ahead of the coming school year.

Still, Chang said he remains concerned about growing anti-vaccine sentiments, however, and believes the problem could continue to worsen.

“A significant challenge currently is a spillover effect from COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy that is now being generalized to overall vaccine hesitancy,” Chang said. 

He encouraged parents to ask questions of their pediatrician and stressed that providers should listen to people’s concerns without judgment.

State data show one factor driving vaccination rates down over the past several years is that an increasing share of children received an exemption from vaccine requirements for religious reasons.

According to state data, 2.3 percent of students are currently exempt for religious reasons, up from 1.4 percent in the 2012-2013 school year.

But in the coming school year, parents will no longer be able to claim a religious exemption in Connecticut at both private and public schools. The new law, which is due to take effect Sept. 1, applies to children entering the school system; all students who already claim a religious exemption will continue to be able to do so.

The COVID-19 vaccine is not included in Connecticut’s list of required vaccines for schoolchildren; only California and Washington, D.C. have taken that step, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. But news on Friday means more parents could have the option to inoculate their kids: The Food and Drug Administration authorized both the Moderna and Pfizer COVID-19 vaccines for children as young as six months old.