Howard Co.'s routine childhood vaccine rates drop to record lows

Jul. 20—The Howard County Health Department is holding a special event where students can receive their routine childhood vaccinations as part of an effort to boost historically low immunization rates in the county.

The free Back on Track event will be held from 4 to 7 p.m. July 26 at Carver Community Center, 1030 N. Purdum St.

All routine childhood vaccinations will be available at that time, including measles, mumps, rubella, polio and HPV. Kids age 6 months and older can also get their COVID-19 vaccines and boosters. Free vision screenings also will be available.

The event is open to everyone and will include free supper, food boxes to take home, a bounce house, free school supplies and door prizes of $50 gift cards from MDwise.

The immunization clinic comes as over 30% of K-12 students, which represents thousands of kids in the county, have not received all the required shots following the COVID-19 pandemic. The number is the lowest since 2015, when the state first started collecting data on student vaccine rates.

The rate is even lower for seniors. Over 39% are behind on vaccines and will age out of programs that track vaccinations once they reach 18.

Jennifer Sexton, the county's public health nursing manager, said a major reason for the concerning immunization rates stems from the statewide stay-at-home orders that started in early 2020 during the pandemic.

During that time, healthcare providers weren't administering routine vaccinations due to the high number of COVID patients who needed to be treated, she said.

"There was no ability to provide routine childhood immunizations for quite some time," Sexton said. "Childhood vaccinations were just really not the priority."

She said that since then, vaccine hesitancy that sprang up due to the COVID-19 shot has played a role in keeping vaccine numbers down.

"Their feelings about the COVID vaccine have spilled over into their feelings about other routine vaccines that they have always accepted," Sexton said.

She said the low immunization rates now have local health officials worried vaccine-preventable illness that have been mostly contained for years could spring up again once school starts next month and spread throughout the community.

"It's absolutely a concern that it could, especially as we start to get a larger number of children and adults who aren't vaccinated for diseases that people have always been vaccinated for in the past," Sexton said.

Rachel Maxey, community outreach coordinator for MDwise, which is partnering with the local and state health department to organize the vaccine clinic, said that's why the event next week is so important.

"We're just trying to help encourage everyone to get back on track and make sure they're getting their kids checked out and keeping up to date on their needed vaccinations," she said. "This is just providing that space and opportunity for them to do that."

Maxey said they are hosting similar events around the state in communities that have especially low immunization rates for routine childhood vaccines in an effort to boost numbers throughout Indiana.

She said the goal is to host a fun event for the whole family so parents and kids feel comfortable getting their shots, and also having health professionals on hand to answer any questions parents might have about the vaccines.

"It's just really important to protect kids against these diseases so they can live a happy, healthy life," Maxey said.

Parents and caregivers are asked to sign up for the event by calling 765-456-2408 and dialing option 1, but registration is not required. Anyone who needs transportation to get to the event should call MDwise at 800-356-1204.

Children younger than 18 years old must be accompanied by an adult with valid identification, such as a driver's license, identification card or passport. Insurance is not required for qualified children to get their shots, but if they are covered by health insurance, that information must be given.

Carson Gerber can be reached at 765-854-6739, or on Twitter @carsongerber1.