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Back-to-school vaccines are still important during a virtual return to school

Even though “Back to school” looks different this year, one thing hasn’t changed: The importance of making sure kids are up-to-date on all their required vaccinations.

By MultiCare Health System

Continued spread of COVID-19 in our communities has led public and private schools across Washington state to postpone planned returns to in-person learning and begin the 2020-2021 school year in a virtual format. But even though “Back to school” looks different this year for a lot of families, one thing hasn’t changed: The importance of making sure kids are up-to-date on all their required vaccinations.

“We are still recommending strongly that all the back to school health prep — which includes getting your kids' vaccinations all in order and their health checks — continue just like you would in any other setting,” said Michael Myint, MD, an epidemiologist and infectious disease specialist with MultiCare. “Even if they're physically distant mostly at home, they will come across other people, whether it be at the store or whether it just be in the neighborhood, and it's really important for our kids' health and safety.” 

“We want to do everything we can to smooth the way to get our kids back to school,” added Gretchen LaSalle, MD, family medicine provider with MultiCare Rockwood Clinic – Quail Run. Making sure children are up-to-date on vaccines now means there won’t be a delay in getting them back in the classroom once in-person instruction resumes.

What’s more, the Washington State Department of Health states that all students must have all their required vaccines to start school — including students attending school online because of school changes during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Why vaccines?

Vaccinations, also called immunizations, are shots (usually) that children as well as adults get in order to be protected against certain illnesses, many of them very serious. Staying up-to-date on vaccinations helps keep children, families and communities safe from potential outbreaks of serious diseases. Unvaccinated children are more likely to catch and spread highly contagious illnesses such as whooping cough (also called pertussis) and measles. 

Since late March, when President Trump declared a national emergency due to COVID-19, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has reported a significant drop-off in routine pediatric vaccine ordering — indicating that U.S. children and their communities may face increased risks for outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases.

“Immunizations are the best defense against preventing many communicable diseases that can cause severe illness and death,” said Roselynn Cuenca-Hodge, MD, a pediatrician with Mary Bridge Children’s Evergreen Pediatrics. “While there’s currently no vaccine for COVID-19, we cannot forget about those illnesses that we do have protection against.”

In the video above, Dr. Myint talks about why back-to-school vaccines and health checks are still important.

What vaccines does my child need?

“Between birth and 18 months, children receive a primary series of vaccinations,” says Gloria Lowe, MD, a family practice physician at MultiCare Eatonville Clinic. “At ages 4 to 5, children get additional doses of MMR, DTap, polio and varicella vaccines, then more boosters at ages 11 to 12.”

It’s important follow the vaccine schedule set by your child’s pediatrician for a number of reasons.

“Vaccines are recommended at certain ages to ensure the best immune response for the child,” said Dr. LaSalle. 

For vaccines that require a series of shots, the purpose of the first shot is often to “prime” the immune system. It is the next shots in the series that protect the child from the disease they are being vaccinated against.

“Only getting one shot in a series — or waiting too long between shots — creates an incomplete immune response,” said Dr. LaSalle.

In addition, some vaccines due at these ages are also required by the Washington State Department of Health prior to the first day of kindergarten and sixth grade. Others, before preschool or entering child care. Children under 5 years of age must be vaccinated against Haemophilus Influenzae type b (Hib) vaccine and pneumococcal vaccine (PCV), though these aren’t required for kindergarten through 12th grade entry.

So, by the time your child enters kindergarten, required vaccinations will include:

  • MMR (measles, mumps, rubella)
  • Polio
  • DTaP (diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis)
  • Chickenpox/varicella
  • A yearly flu shot*
  • Hepatitis B

The average 11- to 12-year-old should receive these immunizations before school:

  • Tdap (tetanus, diphtheria, pertussis)
  • Human Papillomavirus (HPV, done in two doses if started before age 15, or three doses if started after)
  • Meningitis (MCV4)
  • A yearly flu shot*
  • Any missing shots from the list above or not received as babies, such as Hepatitis A vaccine

​A new law that went into effect in Washington state in 2019 requires all children entering kindergarten, in public and private schools, to receive the MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccine before entering school. The law eliminates philosophical objections to getting the vaccine (although parents can opt out for religious or valid medical reasons).

How do I get my child’s immunization records?

With the widespread use of electronic health records, it’s easier to keep track of your children’s immunization’s records.

At MultiCare, parents can get that information on their child through logging into MyChart, and they can opt to receive automatic text reminders of when vaccinations are due. Parents are also given a printout of their child’s vaccination records each time they receive their shots.

Of course, people move and change health care providers all the time. Parents should always keep immunization records on file at home. Contact your child’s doctor, nurse or clinic for complete records. If you can't get a complete immunization history from your provider, you can most likely get records from the Washington State Immunization Information System; contact the Office of Immunizations and Child Profile at 360-236-3595 or 866-397-0337.

Where can I get my child vaccinated?

Your child’s pediatrician or other primary care provider can to get your child vaccinated. Doctor’s offices are taking extra precautions to help keep patients safe from exposure to COVID-19. These steps may include scheduling fewer appointments during the day to reduce the number of people in the clinic building at one time. So if your child is due for vaccinations and you haven’t already done so, schedule an appointment for them as soon as possible.

In Pierce County, the Mary Bridge Mobile Immunization Clinic also provides free immunizations to children from birth through 18 years of age. The Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department maintains a current schedule for the clinic’s days and hours. The clinic’s vaccines services are currently available by appointment only. Make an appointment by calling 253-403-1767.

*The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends a yearly flu vaccine for everyone 6 months and older.

Vaccine requirements can change, so it's important to keep up to date: visit the Washington State Department of Health for more information.