It’s that time of year again when we start seeing school supplies like lunchboxes, pens, pencils, and notepads on store shelves. That can only mean one thing; it’s time to return to school. But wait, aren’t we still dealing with a pandemic of COVID-19? Yes, we are, but with many people being vaccinated and hospitalization numbers being lower, the fact is that kids are expected to return to school to continue their education, for the most part, in person. As a former immunizations program nurse manager of a large county health department, I worry about the health of our students and the health of our community as school starts this year. It was always a challenge to make sure students were vaccinated before returning to school, and this year, especially this year with the effects the pandemic has had on our community access to preventive services.
Remember way back to March of 2020 when COVID-19 shut down the world? We stopped doing many activities that exposed us to other people outside of our immediate households. This included going to medical providers unless it was absolutely necessary to meet in person for a diagnosis or lab sample. For two years, our community has not kept up with yearly preventive health appointments like dental cleanings and exams, yearly physicals, and you guessed it, continual reminders and administration of immunizations needed at specific ages, for fear of spreading COVID-19. We see it in the news and we see it in the numbers with the largest drop in childhood vaccinations in 30 years. Now that restrictions are easing and we are spending more time around other people and community members, we need to ensure we are remaining vigilant against contracting other diseases that can spread through our population, in addition to COVID-19.
In the past, we have seen many opportunities to be immunized in the community, but this year may be a little different. I remember the months leading up to back-to-school events when our army of nurses at the health department would gather for a potluck lunch meeting, and we would spend three hours strategizing, planning, and scheduling, and assigning shifts to clinics around the community for back-to-school events. We would give thousands of immunizations in the few weeks leading up to school starting each year. We ran clinics in fire stations (Shots For Tots and Teens clinics), in all of our health department offices (Adams Arapahoe and Douglas counties, our partners in Denver county took similar actions), department stores, places of worship, Boy Scout and Girl Scout troop meetings, sporting events, and even in the Aurora Mall. Our nurses were exhausted after the back-to-school clinics, only to start planning for the fall influenza and pneumococcal clinics to come in the next few months.
This year, our health care providers are especially exhausted after responding to a continued pandemic for over two years. While there are still some larger community events and clinics taking place, the number of opportunities to vaccinate students may not be as prevalent as they have been in the past. It may take a little bit more proactive action on the part of parents to ensure their child is fully immunized before, or shortly after returning to school. With most of the world lifting travel restrictions and larger community events, there is a high potential for diseases like measles, mumps, polio, and pertussis to come back strong and spread throughout our community. The best way to prevent this from happening is to not allow the disease to be contracted through immunizations. Not only are we protecting ourselves and our families, we are protecting those in our community that have a true medical reason they can’t be vaccinated against such diseases, and protecting our friends and family who may have weakened immune systems from asthma, diabetes, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), cancer treatment, or a variety of other conditions.
Consider this a final call to action before or shortly after school has started, to make sure we are not letting our guard down against other communicable diseases by making an appointment with your student’s medical provider for a physical and vaccinations. With a little persistence we can all ensure that the next pandemic we respond to is not one that we already have the tools and immunizations to prevent.