NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) — Public health leaders are sounding the alarm about fewer Tennessee children getting routine vaccinations.

The Tennessee Department of Health released its Kindergarten Immunization Compliance Assessment Report for 2021-2022, and it showed that compared to the previous school year there was an increase in kindergartners missing required immunizations or proper documentation necessary for school attendance.

“An under vaccinated kindergarten community is at increased risk for highly infectious and sometimes fatal outbreaks of vaccine preventable diseases.” John R. Dunn, DVM, PhD State Epidemiologist stated in the report summary. “The increasing number of kindergarteners who are not fully immunized indicates Tennessee schools and communities are more susceptible to vaccine-preventable disease outbreaks.”

The state aims to have 95% of students fully immunized. According to the report, the percentage of public and private school students who received all vaccines per Tennessee’s state requirements for kindergarten entry has consistently been close to 95% since 2015. The report stated that in recent years that stability ended with an all-time low of 93.7% of all 2021-2022 reported kindergarten students in Tennessee being fully immunized.

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“That 95% goal is basically the percentage of the proportion of people that would need to be vaccinated against a highly communicable disease like measles,” said Dr. Caitlin Newhouse, Medical Director, TDH Vaccine-Preventable Diseases & Immunization Program. “Measles is one of the diseases that we protect our kids against with a vaccine. We aim to have about 95% of our kids vaccinated against measles. And we think that kind of gives a general protection to the community.”

For public schools statewide, 93.9% of students were fully immunized at the time of the survey, which was 70,274 of 74,830 students. In the private schools that responded to the survey, 89.4% (3,834 of 4,290 students) were fully immunized, which was a 2.9% decrease from the previous year.

(Source: TDH)

“I think the thing that’s the most concerning is the idea that this might be a general trend of declining numbers. And so you know, if this is what we have this year, there’s concern that if we continue to see these types of trends, then the vaccine coverage rates may decrease further,” said Dr. Newhouse. “It’s something that we really want to make sure that we are addressing.”

She says the specific reason behind the decrease here in Tennessee is unclear but the COVID-19 pandemic obviously played a big role. The pandemic impacted routine doctor visits and in-person learning, forcing many students to fall behind on their shots.

According to the report, the number of counties with public schools that fall below the 95% fully immunized threshold increased 31% since the pandemic’s onset. That meant only 45% (43 of 95) of in the 2021-2022 Kindergarten assessment met the minimum threshold of 95% fully immunized for vaccine-preventable disease immunity. The report stated that of the 31 counties with private school responses to the 2021-2022 survey, only 26% exceed 95% of students fully immunized.

(Source: TDH)

“Tennessee has had really strong immunization coverage rates for kindergarteners entering entering school,” said Dr. Newhouse. “This year, the report has shown there has been a decrease in immunization coverage for those kindergarteners who are entering school, which is consistent with trends that have been seen across the country.”

Pediatrician Dr. Julie Morita is executive vice president of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation serving on a CDC advisory committee to the director. She explained how the other impact of decreased vaccinations might be the COVID-19 vaccine itself.

“Many parents had questions about the safety and the efficacy of the COVID vaccine, which is really appropriate when a new vaccine comes out, you want to have your questions answered,” said Dr. Morita. “But, I think there was spill over to the other vaccines, which have really been around for many, many years, have been tried and true, we know are safe, we know are effective, we know are really, really important.”

Dr. Morita also served as Commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health.

“As a pediatrician, as a mom, as a public health person, when I saw the results that showed that children aren’t getting as well vaccinated as they have in the past, I was very, very concerned,” said Dr. Morita. “I think we have benefitted from a huge and strong vaccination program that has really virtually eliminated many serious diseases like measles, polio, meningitis, bacterial meningitis, serious diseases.”

She implored parents to remember the different impacts these diseases can have on children compared to COVID-19.

“Like polio, in particular, the paralyzed state that we saw people have when they get polio decades ago, that can actually happen to children at higher rates than it does with older people,” said Dr. Morita. “Measles can be a really serious debilitating disease causing horrible lung disease, brain disease, deafness, serious outcomes and children are seriously affected. So we can’t assume that just because with COVID, children may have done better than adults, that all vaccine preventable diseases are the same as well.”

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The decline in routine shots comes as the United States documented its first cases of polio in more than a decade.

“When you look at New York State, they just identified a person who had polio and that’s concerning, because in some counties in some communities in New York state, there are really low polio vaccine coverage levels, and that means that disease could actually spread,” said Dr. Morita. “In New York State, they really ramped up their vaccination programs to make sure that adults and children who have not been immunized at all or who haven’t been fully immunized, get vaccinated. And that needs to happen in every state right now.”

She said public health officials need to do everything possible to encourage parents to become educated about improving immunization numbers among children.

“It’s not one simple thing. Part of it is really addressing the parents concerns, having them be comfortable asking questions, getting the information into their hands. And then the other part of that is really making sure that doctors, community leaders, whoever is trusted by parents have the information they need and the vaccine available,” said Dr. Morita.

She said it’s also important to make sure the vaccines are as accessible as possible.

“Not all parents can take their time off of work to take their children to the doctor’s office in the middle of the day, they might need to have clinics that are after hours, on weekends, different times of the day, and really in close proximity to where parents are so they can get their children vaccinated,” said Dr. Morita.

The new school year also came with low COVID-19 vaccination rates among children. Dr. Morita said while much of the country’s population is protected due to more widespread immunity, many people are still getting sick from COVID-19.

“The pandemic is not over and our children still are at risk. So we really need to get our children vaccinated,” said Dr. Morita. “I’m really concerned, when I look at our six month to five year old vaccine coverage level, it’s less than 10% of our children have gotten vaccinated. So that means that 90%, more than 90% of our young children are really not protected against COVID and could actually get sick and get seriously sick.”