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Vaccinations for low-income children dropped sharply in the months of March and April in Maine, a possible fallout from people delaying routine health care during the coronavirus pandemic.
The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s Vaccines for Children Program, a federally funded program that provides free vaccinations for children whose families would otherwise be unable to access them, distributed 28 percent fewer vaccines in March and 45 percent fewer in the month of April compared with last year’s distributions, said CDC Director Nirav Shah.
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A broader sense of what vaccination rates across the state are looking like will not be available until July, Shah said, but federal data show childhood immunizations have been dropping across the country due to the pandemic, the New York Times has reported. The state of Maine is asking health care providers to tell them how their services have been altered by the virus and asking them to reassure parents that vaccines can be delivered safely.
A delay in vaccinations now could lead to a pile-up in appointments later, putting children at risk, Shah said.
“They could potentially be exposed to dangerous and preventable illnesses that might be circulating in our community, separate and apart from COVID-19,” he said.
Maine’s vaccination rates for school children have declined over the years, with 93.8 percent of kindergarteners during the 2018-19 school year immunized for measles, mumps and rubella. That put Maine above neighboring New England states New Hampshire and Vermont but below Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island.
Maine also had one of the highest nonmedical exemption opt-out rates in the country at 5.6 percent. The state’s Legislature voted to remove that exemption last year, a measure that withstood a ballot challenge this March and will go into effect in 2021.
At least one branch of Maine’s largest hospital network was seeing vaccination rates hold steady earlier in the year. About 57 percent of LincolnHealth’s pediatric patients under the age of 2 were up to date on vaccinations in March, said Dr. Melissa Keeport, a pediatrician with the health care network serving Lincoln County. That’s a little below the county average at roughly the same time last year, which is typically lower than the rest of the state, according to Maine CDC data.
LincolnHealth is part of the larger MaineHealth hospital network, which includes Maine Medical Center in Portland.
Keeport said she was “pleasantly surprised” by the numbers because LincolnHealth stopped its weekly outreach to remind parents to get their children vaccinated about six week ago to focus on the pandemic. However, she noted that vaccination rates for 2-year-olds had dropped from 58.7 percent in January to 56 percent in April for all of LincolnHealth — and at the Damariscotta office she works at, the rates dropped from 64.7 percent to 60 percent in that same time period.
That outreach resumed two weeks ago, and LincolnHealth immediately saw 150 overdue patients sign up for the hospital system’s curbside vaccination clinics, Keeport said. The procedure takes under 10 minutes, and Keeport said she hopes it will calm the nerves of parents who are worried about getting their children sick by taking them to a medical office.
“People are concerned about coming into contact with health care workers any more than they have to,” she said.
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