COVID-19 isn’t Florida’s only public health threat. A new report from the state Department of Health shows that the percentage of Florida school children getting their required immunizations sunk to a 10-year low. This is a worrisome drop the state and hard-hit counties need to reverse.
About 91.7% of kindergarten students in public and private schools statewide completed the immunizations required to enter school during the 2021-2022 academic year, the News Service of Florida reported, citing state data from September. Among seventh-graders, 94.3% completed their shots for the last school year, the lowest rate since 2009-2010, when the figure reached 93.4%.
The shots required do not include COVID-19 vaccinations; they are designed instead to protect against diseases including tetanus, diphtheria, measles, mumps, rubella, influenza B, hepatitis B and polio.
“Those are historically all diseases … that have caused, in the past, significant mortality and morbidity in children when these diseases were prevalent and we weren’t vaccinating,” Kathleen Ryan, a pediatrician and infectious disease specialist at the University of Florida College of Medicine, told The News Service. “If the immunization rates fall in any one of those areas, we start to see those diseases creep back in.”
Only about one-fourth of Florida’s 67 county school districts met or surpassed the state’s goal of having 95% of kindergarten students receiving all their required vaccines. In nine districts, including the larger ones of Palm Beach, Orange and Duval counties, fewer than 90% of kindergarten students completed their shots. While seventh-graders statewide fared better overall, vaccinations among the older children still lagged in 18 Florida counties.
Though the difference in these numbers may seem minor, the 95% threshold is a commonly-used benchmark, and every drop represents an ever-larger window for breakthrough diseases, with more real kids suffering as a result.
School immunization rates have been dropping nationwide; for the 2020-21 school year, coverage was approximately 94% for all required vaccines, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or about one percentage point lower than the prior school year, before the COVID pandemic hit.
While the disinformation about COVID vaccines hasn’t helped, there are many reasons for the drop off in inoculations. The shutdowns and the self-imposed restrictions to contain the pandemic disrupted many Americans’ routines. Parents fell behind on doctor’s visits. School closings put the required shots on the back burner for many. Public health departments reprioritized their resources to fight COVID-19. And some children even now simply haven’t returned to the classroom, opting instead for virtual schooling that carves them out of the vaccination reporting requirement.
This decline is no surprise; state health officials knew in August 2021 that childhood immunizations were down, that parents were postponing routine shots and that the impacts were widely disparate among counties. Lisa Gwynn, a Miami pediatrician who then served as president of the Florida chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, warned at the time that the decline in immunizations was “leaving Florida’s children and most vulnerable populations at risk for vaccine preventable diseases.” The state needs to work with these lagging counties on expanding their public outreach and education efforts. There’s no reason a medically advanced society should be slipping on childhood shots.
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Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman and CEO Conan Gallaty. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.