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COVID-19 Concerns Alter Approach to Immunizations

Oklahoma City’s Latino Community Development Agency recently has resumed its vaccination clinics after threat of exposure to the novel coronavirus had shut them down for months.

The nonprofit organization will hold appointment-only immunization clinics in its parking lot to catch up with community demand. It requires health screenings and temperature checks before children are permitted to leave their vehicles and escorted to a vaccination area held inside a Caring Van operated by the Caring Foundation of Oklahoma. The van is cleaned and disinfected after each appointment.

The foundation and its Caring Van program are supported by Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Oklahoma.

“We couldn’t do it without the Caring Foundation,” says Yuliana Reyes, the agency’s health programs director. “It helps us provide a service we otherwise wouldn’t have the resources to offer.”

Plunging vaccination rates caused by COVID-19 infection concerns have complicated the traditional ways community organizations, providers and public health departments push immunizations ahead of the school year. Large-scale immunization and back-to-school events have been replaced by appointment-only and drive-through vaccination clinics to ensure safety, while protecting children from potentially dangerous diseases other than COVID-19.

“Keeping up with vaccines is paramount to prevent one crisis from causing another,” says Dr. Stephanie Vomvouras, vice president and chief medical officer of quality and accreditation for Blue Cross and Blue Shield Plans in Illinois, Montana, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas. “It could lead to an epidemic on top of a pandemic.”

“Keeping up with vaccines is paramount to prevent one crisis from causing another."

Every other week, Reyes’ agency will vaccinate children with help from the Caring Van program, which provided more than 20,145 vaccinations statewide in 2019.

“Our Caring Van specialists have new COVID-19 policies and procedures that we have implemented,” says Amy Pulliam, the Caring Foundation’s manager, adding that new safety measures include mandatory mask wearing for staff, families and children we may serve, maintaining social distancing guidelines and rigorous sanitizing and disinfecting processes.

Immunizations drop worldwide

Health care experts are concerned a drop in vaccinations rates could cause other disease outbreaks.

After the pandemic declaration in March, office visits for immunizations among Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Oklahoma members declined, dropping nearly 34% between March and May compared with the number of visits reported during the same period in 2019.

Parents nationwide have canceled pediatric checkups, and immunization levels for vaccine-preventable diseases have plummeted, according to the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases. Well-child office visits have decreased 50%, and doses distributed through the federally funded Vaccines for Children program have dropped significantly.

The World Health Organization (WHO) and UNICEF have reported a decline in the number of children receiving life-saving vaccines around the world.

“Vaccines are one of the most powerful tools in the history of public health, and more children are now being immunized than ever before,” says Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO director-general. “But the pandemic has put those gains at risk. The avoidable suffering and death caused by children missing out on routine immunizations could be far greater than COVID-19 itself.”

Recognizing the urgency, the five Blues Plans are developing tools and pilot programs that eventually could help its medical directors identify opportunities to increase member immunization rates. Data scientists from the their Quality Innovation Institute have developed a county-by-county mapping tool, breaking down numbers, including membership, plan types and primary care physician selections, as well as vaccination rates and demographic information.

“This (mapping) tool will help us find opportunities to implement initiatives,” says senior data analysis director Dimitrina Dimitrova.

The company's health innovation platform incubator team is launching a pilot that will focus on pregnant women and mothers of infants and children up to age two. The team will test immunization approaches with these families to develop methods that meet their needs.

A Division of Health Care Service Corporation, a Mutual Legal Reserve Company, an Independent Licensee of the Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association