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Column: COVID-19 makes routine vaccinations more important -- not less

Sally C. Pipes

As Americans eagerly anticipate a coronavirus vaccine, there's troubling evidence that they're failing to get inoculated against other infectious diseases.

To get vaccination rates back where they need to be, policymakers must remind the public of the importance of routine immunizations and remove regulatory barriers that make it difficult for people, including children, to get their shots.

Records from the Kentucky Health Department indicate vaccination rates among kids aged 18 and under decreased by more than 56 percent between March and June compared to the same period last year.

In New York City, the number of vaccine doses administered through May dropped 63 percent compared to the same period last year. For children two and older, doses were down 91 percent.

The decline in measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccination rates is especially problematic. Colorado already has the lowest MMR vaccination rate in the country at just under 89 percent. But from March to July, the rate of weekly MMR vaccinations dropped even further -- 19 percent among kindergarten-aged kids.

Colorado's experience is not atypical. An analysis of records from 1,000 pediatricians across the country found a 50 percent drop in measles vaccinations between February 16 -- before the lockdowns began -- and April 5.

We can ill afford such declines. Just last year, an outbreak in New York almost caused the country to lose its measles elimination status.

Falling vaccination rates are an understandable, if misguided, response to the pandemic. Many patients and their families feared contracting the coronavirus if they visited a healthcare facility. In some places, patients were actively dissuaded from seeking routine care so healthcare professionals could focus on the coronavirus.

Even when patients felt comfortable going to the doctor's office, they may have struggled to get an appointment. Scores of pediatricians and primary-care physicians have reduced hours because of plummeting demand.

The pernicious influence of the nation's anti-vaccination movement also deserves blame. Even in the face of COVID-19, an astonishing number of Americans remain skeptical of vaccines. According to one recent survey, only 51 percent of the country would "definitely or probably" get the COVID-19 vaccine if it were available today.

Any policy response to the decline in vaccination rates has to start with education.

Americans must understand that vaccines aren't just safe and effective -- they are essential. This means that, unlike dining out or going to the movies, routine vaccinations aren't luxuries that can be dispensed with.

Reforms that make it easier for patients to get vaccinated are just as important. States can give pharmacists the power to dispense routine shots independently. Most states only allow them to do so with a physician's prescription or according to protocol established by a physician or institution.

Rolling back these rules would make routine immunizations more convenient -- especially given that nine in ten Americans live within five miles of a pharmacy.

And when a COVID-19 vaccine becomes available, these newly empowered pharmacists could ensure the breakthrough vaccine reaches patients quickly and on a massive scale.

People can't let the coronavirus stop them from getting inoculated against the likes of the flu or measles, mumps, and rubella. Our nation can ill afford a resurgence of preventable diseases like these while we're struggling to manage an outbreak of one for which we don't yet have a vaccine.

Sally C. Pipes is president, CEO, and the Thomas W. Smith fellow in healthcare policy at the Pacific Research Institute. Her latest book is False Premise, False Promise: The Disastrous Reality of Medicare for All (Encounter 2020). You can follow her on Twitter: @sallypipes.