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Tulsa Health Department sees sharp decline in immunizations during pandemic

Tulsa Health Department sees sharp decline in immunizations during pandemic


Routine vaccinations have taken a downturn both locally and globally during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Health experts are encouraging people to keep up to date on their vaccinations, warning that vaccine-preventable diseases are at risk for a resurgence.

“If routine vaccination is postponed, we fear the community could be faced with not only the COVID-19 pandemic but an outbreak of vaccine-preventable diseases like measles, as well,” Tulsa Health Department Director Bruce Dart said during a COVID-19 briefing.

Tulsa Health Department staff administered about 10,500 immunizations to about 5,500 people from April through July in 2019, according to data provided by the department. For the same time period in 2020, the number of immunizations plummeted to about 3,000 immunizations for about 1,500 people.

That is about a 71% decrease in administered immunizations and about a 73% decrease in clients the Health Department immunized.

The measles has largely been absent from Oklahoma in the 1990s and in the new millennium, but three cases occurred in 2018 and four cases in 2019, according to Oklahoma State Department of Health data.

Tulsa County is following a global trend noted by the World Health Organization and UNICEF in a mid-July report. Preliminary data indicate a global downturn in the number of children completing the three-dose course of the vaccine against diphtheria, pertussis and tetanus.

The WHO’s director general, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said in a statement last month that the pandemic has put at risk the gains — such as near elimination of measles — made since inoculations became available.

“The avoidable suffering and death caused by children missing out on routine immunizations could be far greater than COVID-19 itself. But it doesn’t have to be that way,” Ghebreyesus said.

The pandemic has dampened immunizations for various reasons, such as COVID-19 prevention measures limiting access or families opting to stay home.

There have not been any known resurgences of vaccine-preventable diseases in Tulsa County during the pandemic. Tulsa Health Department Clinical Services Director Ellen Niemitalo said the efforts to prevent the spread of COVID-19 also have the benefit of preventing the vaccine-preventable disease from spreading to those who have not yet been vaccinated.

However, the concern for spread is renewed as educational institutions prepare for the upcoming academic year, and the Health Department’s data, which represents only people seen by the department, is “definitely indicative” that children are not being immunized, Niemitalo said.

Though many students are attending virtual rather than in-person sessions, education-related vaccine requirements remain in effect, and the department has seen an increase in appointments as families prepare for school, she said.

“Unfortunately, we don’t have a way of virtually administering vaccines. … There still has to be some contact,” but the Tulsa Health Department has made efforts to protect patients and staff during in-person visits, she said.

Health Department staff and patients are “triaged,” meaning they are checked for COVID-19 symptoms, Niemitalo said. Staff members are checked at the start of their shifts, and patients are checked when they arrive for their appointments.

“There really has been a push, both in Oklahoma and nationwide, encouraging families to bring their children back to their providers for their Well-Child checkup,” she said.

Families may contact their health care providers to find out what precautions are being taken. Federal health officials recommend calling ahead and waiting outside the provider’s facility to reduce waiting room crowding.

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