We probably spend too much of our day worrying about and responding to the novel coronavirus. We work from home, or don’t work at all, worrying about this infection’s economic impact on us and our community, even if we are comfortable. We teach our children at home while gaining new appreciation for their teachers. We plan our trips to the grocery store and pharmacy like the strategic operations they are, ensuring we have facemasks, remembering our social distancing, and having enough hand sanitizer. Through Zoom and Facebook, we socialize and even worship on-line, wondering if this virtual reality substitutes for our actual communities.
We wonder endlessly about our health. Most of us did not anticipate these challenges, while those few who did couldn’t get the attention of national leaders responsible for making a timely, proactive and aggressive response. We’ve redefined ‘essential personnel’, and they are our new heroes. Everyone is making tremendous sacrifices.
Yet, things may be changing for the better. In some places, new cases have plateaued or declined – in proportion to the vigor with which disease mitigation measures have been pursued. U.S. deaths predicted have decreased in some models, to ‘only’ 90,000 – a tragic number still far greater than all the American lives lost in the Vietnam War. Our hospitals have not been overwhelmed. Our stocks of medical equipment and PPE are increasing. Diagnostic tests are becoming more available and innovative, too; we can, finally, predict a time when we can do all the tests we need. Scientifically sound research into treatment and prevention is progressing rapidly.
Hospitals are resuming elective surgeries, and soon houses of worship, and many businesses will begin to resume their original functions, albeit exercising prudent care and safe social distancing practices.
BUT NONE of this should make us feel completely secure. Public health departments have been working in the dark, due to testing shortfalls; worse, they remain understaffed to do the contact tracing – crucial to an evidence-based reopening of the economy. The good news: Governor Northam just announced that the Commonwealth will be hiring 1,000 new people to work as contact tracers and has taken measures to rapidly increase Virginia’s testing capacity to what it needs to be. The bad news: medical supply chains are under-resourced, nationally disorganized and insecure. Frontline clinical providers are few in number, at high risk for infection themselves and impossible to replace quickly. Societal inequities putting communities of color at increased risk remain huge problems dating back to the Civil War.
Overshadowing this is the fact that this coronavirus is a novel infection, which confounds precise planning. Will there be a second wave worse than the first, like the Spanish flu? Will it reoccur seasonally? Are survivors immune and, if so, for how long? More than 70 vaccines are in development, but a widely deployable vaccine won’t be available for many more months. Given the severity of this infection and the large numbers at risk, we cannot rely on natural ‘herd immunity’.
We know some important ways to respond to this pandemic. Wash our hands thoroughly, stay at home inasmuch as possible, socially distance properly and maintain personal healthcare.
However, there is more that we need to think about today. One of the negative repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic is an alarming drop in routine vaccination rates.
REMEMBER THE LESSONS from the measles outbreaks. We in Northern Virginia remain at risk for vaccine-preventable diseases. Pediatricians report a 30-76 percent decrease in administering routine childhood immunizations, including measles and influenza, because well-child visits are being conducted virtually. This season, 390,000 cases of influenza have been diagnosed, with 24,000 deaths. To avoid compounding the coronavirus pandemic, we must ‘double down’ on routine immunizations – a cornerstone of public health.
This General Assembly session we passed our House Bill 1090, mandating that immunizations required for school attendance comply with authoritative national standards. We are still working on legislation to tighten standards for granting medical and non-medical exemptions, decreasing financial barriers providers face administering immunizations, and facilitate access for patients. In the meantime, we strongly encourage you to get your children vaccinated. The Governor, himself a pediatric neurologist, urged parents to make appointments for their children to be vaccinated. Pediatricians throughout the region have made accommodations to safeguard parents and children at such visits.
Last week was National Infant Immunization Week; the Virginia Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics reminds us that childhood immunizations are essential — even life-saving — with additional value during the pandemic. We understand that many parents hesitate to bring their child to a doctor’s office right now, but we assure you that it is both safe and necessary.
We want to prevent outbreaks of communicable diseases like Pertussis (also known as whooping cough), Meningitis, Rotavirus, the measles, and others. Please reach out to your pediatrician to find out what accommodations they are making, whether your children are up to date on their vaccinations, and to schedule their inoculations. Remember, vaccines are critical to protecting the health and welfare of our children and our community. We don’t want to precipitate a second public health crisis.