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With COVID now common in kids, even routine childhood vaccinations remain behind schedule

New CDC data shows 75% of kids have COVID antibodies from a COVID infection. In MN, 30% are behind on routine vaccines.

MINNEAPOLIS — A new study from the CDC found that 75% of kids 11 and under have now been infected by COVID-19. 

While the youngest of those kids still don't have access to a COVID vaccine, many are also still behind on routine childhood vaccinations that protect them from measles, whooping cough and more.

The CDC data came from blood samples sent to commercial laboratories across the US. Samples analyzed in February, following the omicron wave, showed that nearly 60% of adults and 75% of children had antibodies indicating that they had been infected by COVID-19. 

"COVID is out there," said Shayanga Beecher, a nurse practitioner for Hennepin Healthcare. "It's a part of our every day, but at the same time, these numbers tell me, because it is out there, we need to rethink what normal is."

For Beecher, who is also program director for Hennepin Healthcare's Pediatric Mobile Health Unit, that means rethinking mobile options to take wellness checks and immunizations on the road to better reach kids.

"This unit serves kids from newborn all the way through teenager and young adult," Beecher said.

The idea for the mobile unit began early in the pandemic. Many parents were skipping well-child visits due to COVID concerns, which led to a different kind of concern for Dr. Dawn Martin.

"We saw rates of childhood vaccinations declining and we didn't want to a see whooping cough or a measles outbreak in the setting of a pandemic," said Martin, Medical director for the mobile unit. "So we knew we had to get vaccinations out in the community and meet our patients where they were."

Two years later, data from the Minnesota Department of Health shows there's still a ways to go. Prior to the pandemic, only 20% of 2-year-olds were considered "not up to date" on their childhood vaccinations. By 2021, that jumped by double digits, with nearly 31% of 2-year-olds still not up to date.

But the work by the mobile health unit has helped Hennepin Healthcare buck that trend.

"We've seen some improvement in catching those kids up, so some of the gaps in vaccination and well-child care have closed," Dr. Martin said. "But they're still there. I think for the families that we serve, those barriers to care that were there before the pandemic; whether it's transportation, or childcare, work/school conflicts, those were just exposed and exacerbated by the pandemic."

Now, with COVID prevalent among the smallest Minnesotans, the mobile unit is working to bring care to those under 5 who can't access a vaccine, while also addressing the COVID vaccination rate among 5- to 11-year-olds, which continues to hover around 40%.

"Those vaccination rates are still a lot lower than they should be," Dr. Martin said. "We really want to do everything we can to communicate with parents that those vaccines are safe, they're effective and they're really one of the most important tools that we still have in trying to bring this pandemic under control."

Beecher says she understands that some families remain hesitant, and she says that's okay, too.

"I think it's important to meet families where they are, both theoretically - in terms of where they are in the learning of the vaccine and illness - and also meeting where they are physically," she said. "I think it's important to not necessarily judge anybody or force the vaccine on anybody. It's just to really provide the information and make sure that there is informed decision-making."

The Minnesota Department of Health wants to remind families that if they are struggling with accessing care for their children - because of cost, time or transportation - they can contact a provider and ask them about programs that provide affordable and accessible solutions.

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