Backlog of Kids in Need of Routine Vaccines Leaves Doctors Scrambling

A backlog of U.S. schoolchildren in need of routine vaccinations against diseases like polio, measles, tetanus and whooping cough has left doctors scrambling to get kids up to date so they don't miss school or get ill, according to the Associated Press.

The delay in vaccinations was caused by the coronavirus pandemic's disruptions of normal activities. Doctor's visits, summer and sports camps, where children usually receive their vaccinations, were either canceled or postponed.

Richard Long, executive director of the Learning First Alliance, a partnership of education organizations that started a public outreach campaign, told the AP that preventable diseases are going to spread when the school year starts.

"It's a big deal," Long said. "We're going to have kids getting seriously sick this fall, and the sad part is, for the most part, it's preventable."

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below:

Children vaccinations
Doctors are scrambling to get kids up to date on mandatory vaccinations for preventable diseases such as polio and measles before the school year starts. Above, LaToya Feltus holds the hand of her daughter Amya, 13, as she receives a COVID-19 shot on August 12 in New Orleans. Mario Tama/Getty Images

The number of non-flu vaccines ordered and administered through the federal Vaccines for Children program, which covers about half of Americans under 18 and serves as a barometer of national trends, plummeted after former President Donald Trump declared a national emergency in March 2020, a review by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) showed.

A subsequent review of 10 jurisdictions, released in June, showed that despite administered doses again approaching pre-pandemic levels last fall, they "did not increase to the level that would have been necessary to catch up children who did not receive routine vaccinations on time."

A full reckoning for schools is still weeks off, when grace periods that allow unvaccinated children to temporarily attend school begin to lapse around the country.

But the latest COVID-19 surge linked to the delta variant has added new hurdles— including swamped doctor's offices and clinics, and even potential shortages of medicine vials, syringes and needles—to the swirl of confusion and fatigue already facing those working to tackle the backlog, health and pharmaceutical experts said.

Dr. Melinda Wharton, director of the CDC's Immunization Services Division, said political rhetoric and misinformation around COVID-19 vaccines also aren't helping.

"In a lot of communities, we polarize vaccines: Either you believe in vaccines or you don't believe in vaccines. And we're lumping a whole lot of perspectives and issues into an artificial dichotomy," she said. "That does worry me a great deal."

Dr. Sara "Sally" Goza, immediate past president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, said her practice in Fayetteville, Georgia, was inundated with families needing to get caught up on their shots. That caused a backlog of patients headed into the first day of school in early August.

"Actually, we've even had patients of other pediatricians calling us," she said, "because I guess they've been told that we're somehow magically able to work people in and get to them when their doctors aren't able to get them in."

And some parents remain complacent, experts said—either because they're vaccine skeptics or because they're exhausted by the pandemic and come from a generation unfamiliar with the ravages of diseases like polio.

"You just have our general population saying, 'I'm tired of thinking about medical issues. I want to be on vacation, I want to be outside, I want to go to the shore, whatever it is," said Wharton. "So getting a non-COVID vaccine doesn't seem like the highest priority for people."

When the Pennsylvania Department of Health reminded parents last week to add their children's routine vaccinations to back-to-school checklists, the comments section conflated into debate over COVID-19 vaccines and mask mandates.

Even those committed to getting the shots sounded tired. "This is getting ridiculous with you people," remarked one parent. "Kind of hard when you can't get an appointment until AFTER school starts!" wrote another.

State education and health departments have joined local districts' efforts to increase information-sharing about vaccines and opportunities for children to get their shots, and governors—including Maryland Republican Larry Hogan and Kansas Democrat Laura Kelly—have elevated this month as National Immunization Awareness Month as a way to bolster compliance.

The Learning First Alliance's Power to Protect vaccination campaign, backed by the National PTA and teachers unions, has provided information to principals, teachers, school nurses and support staff like bus drivers and janitors on which shots students of different ages require, and where to get them.

"Nudge and encourage is really the role here," the group advised in a June tweet shared by the American Federation of Teachers and others.

Pediatrician backlog
Dr. Sara Goza at First Georgia Physician Group Pediatrics in Fayetteville, Georgia, on August 17. Her practice was inundated with families needing to get caught up on their routine vaccinations, which caused a backlog of patients before the first day of school in early August. Angie Wang/AP Photo