NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) – Child immunization rates are raising concerns for leaders in the Tennessee Health Department after a report found there is approximately a five-fold increase in the number of children that have received no doses of recommended vaccines in 2021, leaving them and others vulnerable to vaccine-preventable diseases.

“Identifying and immunizing kids is so critical to the health of our communities and COVID-19 really has had a drastic impact on those vaccination rates,” said Dr. Paul Petersen, Interim Director of the Vaccine-Preventable Diseases and Immunization Program at the Tennessee Health Department. “If we, again, want to prevent really severe diseases from coming back into our communities we need to get these vaccination rates back up.”

The health department released its 2021 Immunization Status Survey of 24-month-old Children in Tennessee. The survey assessed vaccines recommended for protection against ten serious illnesses before the age of 24 months: diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis (combined as DTaP), poliomyelitis (IPV), measles, mumps, rubella (combined as MMR), Haemophilus influenza type B (HIB), hepatitis B (HBV), varicella (VAR), and pneumococcus (PCV).

According to the report, historically, Tennessee’s vaccination rates have remained relatively high, but have not achieved federal metrics of the Healthy People Objectives. The report stated that in 2021, Tennessee met two out of the 12 HP2020 objectives and none of the three HP2030 objectives. The state also ranks in the bottom 20% of states for the completion of seven vaccine series ranking 41st in the nation.

“That means we have areas for improvement,” said Dr. Petersen. “The big overriding discussion here is that identifying and immunizing children that have fallen behind is really high priority.”

The report stated that the COVID-19 pandemic caused many children to fall behind in their routine childhood immunizations and unfortunately, catch-up vaccinations are not happening. In 2020, there were almost 140,000 fewer doses of childhood vaccines administered to children aged 24 months or less than in 2019. In 2021, there were almost 80,000 fewer doses of childhood vaccines administered to children aged 24 months or less than in 2020.

“We went back and looked at basically a number of vaccinations for this age group over time, year over year. And we can see that we have under-vaccinated 220,000 children in Tennessee,” Dr. Petersen explained.

According to their report while immunization rates later in 2020 largely returned to 2019 levels, and vaccination rates between 2020 and 2021 increased overall, the difference between vaccination rates in 2019 before the COVID-19 pandemic and the vaccination rates in 2021 during the height of the pandemic are cause for concern.

“There are some significant racial disparities as well,” Dr. Petersen explained. “Across the state, we can see that Black children are more likely to be under-immunized than their white counterparts.”

The department is now working to get the message out about the need to be caught up on immunizations.

“We are working with the healthcare provider community to have the ability and really empower them, using the immunization systems that we have, to be able to send reminders and recalls out to families that have children that are not vaccinated fully for their age,” said Dr. Petersen. “So we are giving them the tools so they can bring those children and their families back in so they can get the vaccines that they need.”

The report stated that additional measures are needed to ensure that these individuals catch up in their routine childhood immunizations to stay healthy.

“We do need to do creative ways of communicating the need for vaccinations with parents and their children because there is some hesitancy out there,” Dr. Petersen said. “We do need to reinforce the importance of these vaccines. You know, the CDC has identified vaccines as one of the 10 greatest public health achievements of the last century. And there are folks that have never seen these diseases because of the successes of these vaccines. And we need to continue to do that. Or we will see, you know, really severe illness and we want to prevent that at all costs.”

He said they’re having deliberate conversations with medical providers and the summer months will be critical in getting children vaccinated in time for the next school year.

“We actually have a kindergarten survey report that will be coming out in the next month or so and there was a decline in those children as well,” said Dr. Petersen. “There’s a number of counties that have vaccination rates of those kindergarten students less than 95%. And that’s really kind of the benchmark that we shoot for to prevent infectious disease outbreaks, is that 95% threshold, and, you know, some of our data is showing that across the state, we are below that number at this point.”

Read more about Tennessee Health Department Immunization Program