A strange and potentially deadly illness popping up among children in the U.S. has dominated headlines around pediatric care over the past few weeks.
The symptoms resemble that of Kawasaki disease, including a rash, fever, swollen hands and feet and abdominal pain. It’s believed to be linked to coronavirus. There are a handful of kids who have been hospitalized in Illinois, and doctors said they’re keeping a close eye out for new cases. The state’s public health director announced Wednesday she’s forming a task force to investigate the illness and its risk to children.
But while pediatricians said they’re watching this potential outbreak carefully, they point to another more prevalent problem they’re witnessing during the pandemic — a dramatic drop in the number of kids getting vaccinated for preventable diseases. It’s a result in large part, pediatricians said, of parents’ fear that bringing a child to a doctor’s office is not worth exposure to COVID-19.
Since the state’s stay-at-home order has been in place, doctors have seen a tremendous drop off in well-child visits and immunizations, said Jennie Pinkwater, head of the Illinois chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Wellness checks are used to check kids’ weight, vitals and the overall physical and mental health. They also include monthly, yearly or biannual vaccinations, depending on a child’s age.
Lurie Children’s Hospital in Chicago provided data that show a 28% decline in vaccinations for children under two, who are most at risk of contracting preventable diseases, and anywhere from a 75% to 85% drop in vaccinations and wellness visits for older children. National data from the CDC also shows major declines in vaccinations across the country.
The state has not yet issued data on a drop in vaccinations or wellness checks this year compared to last, though Pinkwater said she expects the numbers will be high.
The risk of steep declines
Doctors in Illinois are particularly concerned about an outbreak of a preventable disease if vaccinations continue to decline.
“While we are concerned about COVID, [children] are far more at risk, at least in Illinois, from vaccine-preventable diseases such as measles, whooping cough, meningitis — these horrible diseases,” said Dr. Eddie Pont, a pediatrician in Elmhurst and chair of government affairs for the Illinois Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics.
In order to prevent something like a measles outbreak, doctors said a certain percent of the population, usually anywhere from 80% to 90%, must have immunity to it. And that immunity is built through vaccines.
“The way we keep these bad diseases like measles out of the United States and out of our communities is by achieving a certain number of people being vaccinated,” said Dr. Julie Holland, with the Chicagoland Children’s Health Alliance.
Holland said the fact that children are socializing less and are out of school during the stay-at-home order gives doctors more leeway to make up for the steep decline, but she’s advising parents to get back on track with vaccination schedules.
Pediatricians are emphasizing the steps they’ve taken over the past few months to ensure children who need wellness check-ups can do so safely. That includes separating sick from non-sick patients, and deep cleaning waiting rooms and check-up areas throughout the day,
But parents like Chicago mom Rachel Julis, whose child is two, said it’s not an easy feat to bring a baby out into the pandemic world, no matter how clean it is.
“He can’t wear a mask, he touches everything and puts his hands in his mouth. I mean, hygiene is not his strong suit,” she said. “He’s going to touch everything, and he’s inevitably going to touch his face before I can wash its hands.”
And fear among parents of contracting the virus has not been the only hurdle to getting vaccinated.
Health care workers have been told by the CDC to prioritize vaccinations for children under two, so even parents who were able and willing to take older children in for check-ups might not have been able to schedule one. And some parents said they’re still experiencing scheduling problems due to a lack of capacity, since doctors are trying to spread visits out as much as possible.
Pediatricians expect this to improve over the next few months, as Illinois continues on its plan to reopen and starts to reinstitute some health care services that have been shut down since the pandemic started. Many pediatricians who spoke to WBEZ said they’ve seen vaccinations pick back up this week alone as they started to offer more services to parents.
“Hopefully in the next couple months, we can rebound some of those numbers, so we don’t get into trouble with outbreaks later on,” Holland said.
Mariah Woelfel is a reporter at WBEZ. You can follow her at @MariahWoelfel.