The precautions we took to reduce face-to-face interactions in health care caused an overall decline of in-person visits and regular immunizations. This decline was especially large for children. We cannot yet fully understand the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on early childhood development. But we believe following your child’s health maintenance plan will help lessen any indirect effects.
The Importance of Early Childhood Development
Early childhood is a critical time of development for physical, mental and interpersonal health. Things that happen in early childhood can profoundly affect how children develop and progress. Limited access to education and food, has caused setbacks for some families during the pandemic. Health care visits have also declined, as we see some children going untreated for longer periods of time and getting fewer preventive health services.
A Worrying Decline in Patient Visits
In a study on COVID-19’s Impact on Pediatric Healthcare in South Carolina, 83% of pediatricians reported a decrease in visits for vaccinations and well-child care. Ninety percent of these doctors reported a decline in visits for chronic and acute conditions. A national study found that the cumulative decline in visits from the start of the pandemic is greatest among pediatricians, which peaked at a 75% decrease in visits in April 2020. Visits for younger children (ages 0-5) remain substantially lower than the prepandemic baseline.
What is causing these major declines? Parents are likely concerned about bringing children to health care facilities during a pandemic. Unfortunately, children in South Carolina are arriving for care seemingly sicker than previous times. We encourage parents and caregivers to seek medical care for children sooner rather than later. Delayed treatment can have adverse effects later in life.
Regular Childhood Immunization Maintenance
In South Carolina, since the pandemic began only about 32% of the routine vaccines expected to be administered were actually given. Vaccination rates declined in March 2020 and stayed low through May; they began to increase until declining again in late June as South Carolina became a “hotspot” of COVID-19 cases.
The CDC warns that falling behind on regular childhood immunizations could result in an increase in vaccine-preventable diseases within communities. This spread could put more strain on the health care system, which we are already trying to relieve. Also, missing appointments for regular immunizations can make it difficult to catch up on required vaccinations in time for the eventual return to in-person schooling.
Slow the Spread
While we must take seriously the current global health pandemic, a hyper focus can cause more harm than good if we ignore or forget other health measures. Delay of care can lead to more intense or longer treatments; missed immunizations can result in unexpected illnesses and community spread. Be diligent in maintaining your child’s health care appointments and seeking medical help as soon as possible. Don’t forget —washing hands often, staying a safe distance from others and wearing a mask will also help slow the spread of COVID-19 and other airborne viruses.
Robert A. Saul, MD
Professor of Pediatrics (Emeritus) / Prisma Health Children’s Hospital-Upstate