With childrens' vaccinations down amid coronavirus, doctors get creative

New programs include drive-thru vaccine stations and home visits

Pediatricians across the country have said they're worried about the potential for new outbreaks of diseases that had been eradicated years ago, because children are getting fewer vaccines overall, according to recent data.

The number of non-flu vaccines ordered for children is at least 2.5 million doses lower than the same time last year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Doctors in all 50 states have seen a steep drop in the number of kids coming in for routine visits, and it has resulted in children forgoing their routine vaccinations and boosters. "The first fall was when the first case of COVID was identified in Washington," Dr. Jose Romero, the chief medical officer of the Arkansas Department of Health, said. "There's been a significant fall following the declaration of a national emergency."

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Many parents said they didn't feel safe bringing their healthy kids to the doctor and risk them contracting COVID-19. "People voted with their feet and didn't come," Dr. Eileen Costello, the chief of ambulatory pediatrics at Boston Medical Center, said. "We were seeing only about 10 percent of our usual volume of kids."

"We serve a population that has been disproportionately impacted by this illness," Costello added. "I think that made us especially worried that people were not going to want to come to the hospital with their kids to protect them against an illness that could have more devastating outcomes than COVID-19 for a child."

To combat the decline in vaccinations, local pediatricians around the country have been coming up with creative ways to get kids protected.

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Boston Medical Center is one of those hospitals, rolling out what it called "Plan B." The hospital partnered with Brewster Ambulance Service and borrowed one of its vehicles. Nurses started calling patients and mapping out routes for the doctors to administer vaccines on children's driveways. So far, the program has helped get more than 450 kids vaccinated.

Other states have opted to try drive-up or curbside doctor visits; some states were encouraging parents to get vaccinations from pharmacists at their local drugstores. Arkansas Children's Hospital opened a drive-thru vaccine station in April to make sure its established primary care patients had an easy opportunity. Hospital officials reported that parents have had great things to say about it. Other physicians were choosing to see sick patients in the morning and healthy children in the afternoon.

Romero is also the chief of pediatric infectious disease at Arkansas Children's Hospital. He said the biggest concern for health officials has been a potential outbreak of non-COVID-related viruses.

"If you don't have enough people, enough children immunized in a community, you can start up with an outbreak like we see in other states in the past," Romero said. "If we start to lose that buffer zone that we have with lots of children immunized, we're going to start to see diseases that in my career have been eradicated."

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Romero said his most important message to parents was that it's safe to go get vaccinated.

"It is safe to go to the hospital," Romero said, "to your doctors' offices."

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