There’s Still Time: Immunize Kids before School Starts

By: Allison Hydzik

COVID-19 has been tremendously disruptive. But there is one area in particular where UPMC clinicians say disruption could cause dire consequences – childhood immunization requirements.

Pennsylvania state health rules normally mandate that all children have required vaccinations by the first day of school unless they have a waiver for religious, medical or philosophical reasons. Recently the state temporarily suspended the requirement in a move that UPMC officials believe could lead to preventable disease outbreaks.

Dr. John Williams

“It really is concerning, both as a parent and as a pediatrician,” said Dr. John Williams, chief of the Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases at UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh. “What people forget is that many of the germs that cause serious infections – like meningitis, whooping cough and encephalitis – are still around and circulating. So if we let up on vaccinating kids, we are very likely to see these diseases flare up.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted routine health care checks for children, which is when pediatricians make sure children are up to date on their immunizations. UPMC Children’s Hospital has worked throughout the summer to get children caught up, participating in free vaccine clinics and doctor visits.

“All pediatricians across all practices affiliated with UPMC can safely administer vaccines – we know how to safely do this during the pandemic,” said Dr. Williams. “So I really encourage parents to get those vaccines before school starts. Don’t delay, because when a child gets sick, it’s too late and you’ll wish you’d gotten it done sooner.”

Dr. Williams recounted an outbreak of whooping cough – a vaccine-preventable disease – that he saw when working in Tennessee where four healthy, full-term infants died of the disease. He attributed the outbreak to low community vaccination rates, allowing the disease to take hold and spread to vulnerable babies who can’t be fully vaccinated.

“Most of us don’t know lots of people who have suffered these illnesses because vaccines have prevented them. That can create a false sense of security that the vaccines aren’t necessary, but that just isn’t true,” he said. “If you haven’t been in a car wreck lately, that doesn’t mean you should stop using your seatbelt. The same thing goes for getting vaccinated.

“There is still plenty of time before school starts for children to receive all their normally required immunizations,” Williams said. “Public health departments are critical partners and they’re really helping to keep us safe, but as a parent and a pediatrician, I would encourage other parents: Get your children those vaccines before sending them to school.”

Click here to listen to Dr. Williams talk with KDKA-AM’s Marty Griffin about childhood immunization and his thoughts on the state’s temporary suspension of school-age vaccination requirements.