Vaccination coverage for kindergartners dropped across the country in the 2020-2021 school year, according to data released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Thursday, part of a worrying decline in childhood immunization since the start of the pandemic.
Coverage for three state-required vaccines for public and private schools — measles, mumps and rubella (MMR), diphtheria, tetanus and whooping cough (DTaP) as well as chicken pox (varicella) — fell by about 1 percent to approximately 94 percent, with most states reporting a drop. Nationally, 2.2 percent of kindergartners had at least one vaccine exemption, and an additional 4 percent of kindergartners without an exemption were not up to date on their MMR shot during the school year.
“We are concerned that missed routine vaccinations could leave children vulnerable to preventable diseases like measles and whooping cough, which are extremely contagious and can be very serious, especially for babies and young children,” said Shannon Stokley, deputy division director of the CDC’s Immunization Services Division.
Childhood immunization dropped dramatically at the start of the pandemic as families stayed at home, and have been slow to catch up. Over the last two years, the CDC saw a more than 10 percent drop from pre-pandemic levels in states’ orders for Vaccines for Children, the federal program through which about half the children in the country are immunized.
The drop in the 2020-2021 school year “means that there’s 35,000 more children in the United States during this time period without documentation of complete vaccination against common diseases,” said Georgina Peacock, acting director of the Immunization Services Division, during a briefing on Thursday.
In addition, she noted, enrollment in kindergarten during the school year dropped by 10 percent, which means around 400,000 fewer children entered kindergarten than expected who might not be up to date on their routine vaccinations.
A lot of factors are influencing the slow recovery of missed childhood vaccinations during the pandemic, public health experts and practitioners say, including parents still catching up on medical visits and a spillover of Covid-19 vaccine hesitancy into attitudes toward routine immunizations.
The political polarization of vaccines, the proliferation of misinformation about routine immunizations and the fact that diseases like measles and polio are so rare in the U.S. have all contributed to parents second-guessing whether they should vaccinate their children.
No major outbreaks of preventable childhood diseases have occurred since the start of the pandemic. And in the latest CDC data, rates of exemption — when parents seek special permission from schools to not vaccinate their children — remain low and the number of children whose parents had requested exemptions dropped in most states.
Of the 47 states and the District of Columbia that reported vaccination data, Mississippi had the highest rate of kindergarten vaccination at 98.9 percent, and the District of Columbia had the lowest at around 78 percent.
States reported a variety of factors that they said contributed to the lower rates, including parents’ reluctance to make appointments, the submission of less paperwork to schools, the easing of vaccination requirements for remote learners and staffing shortages to collect data.
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