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With kids back in Florida schools, doctors stress the importance of vaccines

Elijah Brooks, 15, went to Robinson High School with his mother Sharea to get his COVID-19 vaccine. She said she wouldn't have known where to get him a shot had the school not offered it.
Daylina Miller
WUSF Public Media
Elijah Brooks, 15, went to Robinson High School with his mother Sharea to get his COVID-19 vaccine. She said she wouldn't have known where to get him a shot had the school not offered it.

Pediatricians are using the start of a new school year to encourage families to make sure kids are caught up on vaccinations, including routine shots against measles and polio and ones that protect against COVID-19.

Florida has some of the lowest COVID-19 vaccination rates for children in the country as the coronavirus continues to spread around the state.

Just over 27% of kids in the 5-11 age group had received at least one dose as of Aug. 17, according to the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Only 2.2% of kids between 2 and 4 years old and 1.1% of babies 6 months to 2 years old had.

Rates are much higher in teenagers who were able to access the shots earlier — and before state health officials started recommending healthy kids not get them, which contradicts federal guidance.

The COVID-19 vaccines can protect kids and adults from severe illness and death, stressed Dr. Julie Morita, a pediatrician and executive vice president of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation who is also a member of a CDC advisory committee.

“I think that what we do know and parents need to know is the COVID vaccine has really been demonstrated to be safe and effective,” Morita said. “We've had over a year, almost two years’ experience with it, with millions of people who've been vaccinated.”

Morita suspects hesitancy about COVID-19 shots could be contributing to why overall vaccination rates dipped in children in recent years.

The state requires students get several vaccines before starting school and additional shots ahead of seventh grade.

The Florida Department of Health reported kindergarten vaccination rates for the 2020-2021 school year were the lowest they had been since 2014, while seventh-grade rates were the lowest in more than a decade. The vast majority of students were caught up on shots, but health officials still reported the declines as “significant.”

Researchers say it’s especially concerning with the resurgence of some preventable diseases like polio, which was recently discovered to be circulating in New York City wastewater. The first U.S. case in a decade was also recently detected in an unvaccinated 20-year-old man in Rockland County, New York.

The state hasn’t published reports from this past school yet so it’s not clear if vaccination rates among students improved, though some pediatricians anecdotally say they saw upticks as coronavirus shutdowns ended and people felt more comfortable returning to health facilities.

Morita said the pandemic posed access barriers, but it also led to a rise in misinformation about vaccines.

“There were a lot of questions and concerns about the COVID vaccine, especially as it relates to children, and so there could be some spillover with parents having more questions and concerns about vaccines that they previously accepted without question,” Morita said.

Morita encourages families talk to health professionals about any concerns.
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Stephanie Colombini
Stephanie Colombini joined WUSF Public Media in December 2016 as Producer of Florida Matters,WUSF’s public affairs show. She’s also a reporter for WUSF’s Health News Florida project.