The Trump administration has announced measures intended to boost childhood vaccination rates that have sagged during the coronavirus pandemic, putting hundreds of thousands at risk of contracting serious and life-threatening diseases.
The Department of Health and Human Services is giving permission to pharmacists nationwide to administer all scheduled shots to children as young as 3, including the flu vaccine, a step that makes immunization more convenient for parents.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said on Thursday that a high-dose flu shot aimed at better protecting people 65 and older will guard against four strains of the virus this year, rather than three. Because the conventional flu vaccine can be less successful in older people, an enhanced shot to boost their immune system has been offered in recent years and this one is stronger than ever.
Protecting against the impending flu season in the United States is foremost on the minds of public health officials, who worry about the confluence of cases of flu and Covid-19 hitting hospitals this fall and winter. On Wednesday, Massachusetts announced that it will require all students, ranging from 6-month-olds in day care centers to those under 30, to get flu shots by Dec. 31. It is the first state to institute such a sweeping requirement for the shot, which is rarely mandated in the U.S.
The Massachusetts order includes elementary and secondary school students who are currently learning remotely. But it allows exceptions for students with medical and religious exemptions, those who are home-schooled and those in colleges and universities who learn remotely and do not set foot on their campuses.
Usually, public health officials recommend that people get flu shots between the middle of September and the end of October. Because immunity can take up to two weeks, the goal would be to have people fully protected in time for the onset of the holiday season, when travel and indoor gatherings make the risk of infection with the flu virus exponentially more likely. Moreover, because immunity wanes over several months, the hope is that protection could last through early spring, when a final surge of flu can emerge.
People should get only one flu shot in a given annual flu season, public health experts say. For children getting their initial flu vaccine, a booster is usually given about four weeks later.
This year, because restrictions imposed by the pandemic have shuttered workplaces and school health clinics where millions usually get their shots, officials have loosened their timing recommendations.
Although pharmacies nationwide are ramping up their ability to administer the shots, access could still be difficult for many people. In that event, many public health experts say, just get the shot as soon as you reasonably can.
People who are 65 and older are also eligible for a vaccine to protect against pneumonia, as are smokers between the ages of 19 and 64. That shot is strongly recommended this year in particular.
Supplies of the flu vaccine should not be a problem, because vaccine manufacturers project they will deliver at least 15 percent more doses than last year.
The new emergency rule allowing state-licensed pharmacists to give federally scheduled vaccines to children ages 3 through 18 is supposed to encourage widespread immunization as schools open during the pandemic, and to resolve a patchwork of state laws that govern shots and age limits.
The Department of Health and Human Services noted that a federal report in May said that childhood vaccination rates had dropped precipitously in the first months of the pandemic. New York City’s numbers had especially plummeted. At the time, many parents were afraid to venture out to doctors’ offices and many pediatricians restricted their hours to emergency cases.
The Coronavirus Outbreak ›
Frequently Asked Questions
Updated August 17, 2020
Why does standing six feet away from others help?
- The coronavirus spreads primarily through droplets from your mouth and nose, especially when you cough or sneeze. The C.D.C., one of the organizations using that measure, bases its recommendation of six feet on the idea that most large droplets that people expel when they cough or sneeze will fall to the ground within six feet. But six feet has never been a magic number that guarantees complete protection. Sneezes, for instance, can launch droplets a lot farther than six feet, according to a recent study. It’s a rule of thumb: You should be safest standing six feet apart outside, especially when it’s windy. But keep a mask on at all times, even when you think you’re far enough apart.
I have antibodies. Am I now immune?
- As of right now, that seems likely, for at least several months. There have been frightening accounts of people suffering what seems to be a second bout of Covid-19. But experts say these patients may have a drawn-out course of infection, with the virus taking a slow toll weeks to months after initial exposure. People infected with the coronavirus typically produce immune molecules called antibodies, which are protective proteins made in response to an infection. These antibodies may last in the body only two to three months, which may seem worrisome, but that’s perfectly normal after an acute infection subsides, said Dr. Michael Mina, an immunologist at Harvard University. It may be possible to get the coronavirus again, but it’s highly unlikely that it would be possible in a short window of time from initial infection or make people sicker the second time.
I’m a small-business owner. Can I get relief?
- The stimulus bills enacted in March offer help for the millions of American small businesses. Those eligible for aid are businesses and nonprofit organizations with fewer than 500 workers, including sole proprietorships, independent contractors and freelancers. Some larger companies in some industries are also eligible. The help being offered, which is being managed by the Small Business Administration, includes the Paycheck Protection Program and the Economic Injury Disaster Loan program. But lots of folks have not yet seen payouts. Even those who have received help are confused: The rules are draconian, and some are stuck sitting on money they don’t know how to use. Many small-business owners are getting less than they expected or not hearing anything at all.
What are my rights if I am worried about going back to work?
What is school going to look like in September?
- It is unlikely that many schools will return to a normal schedule this fall, requiring the grind of online learning, makeshift child care and stunted workdays to continue. California’s two largest public school districts — Los Angeles and San Diego — said on July 13, that instruction will be remote-only in the fall, citing concerns that surging coronavirus infections in their areas pose too dire a risk for students and teachers. Together, the two districts enroll some 825,000 students. They are the largest in the country so far to abandon plans for even a partial physical return to classrooms when they reopen in August. For other districts, the solution won’t be an all-or-nothing approach. Many systems, including the nation’s largest, New York City, are devising hybrid plans that involve spending some days in classrooms and other days online. There’s no national policy on this yet, so check with your municipal school system regularly to see what is happening in your community.
Since then, immunization rates have begun to rebound, even in New York City. By midsummer, pediatricians’ hours had largely returned to normal.
Though many public health advocates welcomed the ruling allowing pharmacists to vaccinate kids, the American Academy of Pediatrics, which represents pediatricians, decried it as misguided, in large part because it might short-circuit essential visits to doctors’ offices.
“In the middle of a pandemic, what families are looking for is reassurance and clinical guidance from the doctors they trust most to care for their children: pediatricians,” said Dr. Sally Goza, the organization’s president. “Pediatricians’ offices are open and safe.”
Adm. Brett P. Giroir, the assistant secretary for health, acknowledged as much. In a statement, Dr. Giroir, a pediatric critical care physician, said: “As we expand options during the Covid-19 response, we are also reminding parents, grandparents, and caretakers that there is no substitute for a critically important well-child visit with a pediatrician or other licensed primary care provider when available.”
But he also said that he knew firsthand of the devastation to children and families from disabling and life threatening diseases, making it important to provide as many ways as possible to get the shots.
“The cornerstone of public health, vaccines, makes these dreaded diseases preventable,” he said.