Marshfield Clinic Dr. Robert Bullwinkel demonstrated a patient video appointment in Eau Claire in April. State data indicates that routine vaccinations, not including the influenza shot, dropped in 2020, and Bullwinkel and other Chippewa Valley pediatricians are encouraging patients to catch up on missed vaccines at their doctor’s office. View more photos at LeaderTelegramPhotos.com.

EAU CLAIRE — All eyes are on the COVID-19 vaccine this spring. But routine vaccination data from 2020 paints a picture of an unpleasant pandemic side effect: Vaccine rates, especially for young kids, were far lower than average during the first year of the pandemic in Wisconsin.

Data from the Wisconsin Immunization Rates Dashboard indicates that far fewer people were given routine vaccines in 2020, compared to 2015-2019.

Vaccines recommended by the CDC for infants, kids and adolescents in the U.S. protect against several diseases: diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis, whooping cough, measles, mumps, rubella, hepatitis A and B, polio, chicken pox and human papillomavirus, among others.

Chippewa Valley pediatricians say they saw a drop in office visits in 2020, the precursor to fewer routine vaccinations.

“There certainly have been a couple months in 2020, March and April, where we were seeing almost no kids in the clinic, as a byproduct of the stay-at-home order,” said Marshfield Clinic pediatrician Dr. Robert Bullwinkel. “Specifically in our area, I believe we actually have done quite well in immunizing kids effectively and appropriately. But going beyond the region, I think it is a trend we’re seeing as a health system, and as DHS points out, as a state.”

Prevea Health also noticed a drop in office visits when the pandemic hit, said Dr. Katie Udenberg, local pediatrician with Prevea.

Mayo Clinic Health System experienced the same.

“The pandemic presented us all with a lot of uncertainty,” said Mayo Clinic pediatrician Dr. Jeremy Forster, who works in the Chippewa Valley, in an email to the Leader-Telegram. “We have been doing more virtual visits and deferring visits when children have symptoms of illness. That makes it much more challenging to get routine vaccines in.”

Statewide, the biggest drop in routine vaccinations was in younger kids, especially 5- and 6-year-olds, according to state vaccination data.

In the final week of March, the state’s worst week for routine vaccines last year, around 12,000 vaccines were given to Wisconsin infants.

In the five years between 2015 and 2019, the average number of vaccines given that same week was 22,000.

Every other age group in Wisconsin, including people 19 and older, also got fewer non-influenza vaccinations in 2020, according to state immunization data.

Wisconsin vaccination rates went higher than the 2015-2019 average during just one short period in 2020: the first week of September.

“For 2020, across the board we’ve seen a significant drop in the number of vaccines given to children,” said Dr. Stephanie Schauer, director of the Wisconsin Immunization Program, at a press conference Jan. 7. “... This is leaving them vulnerable to serious diseases like measles and mumps, but also influenza.”

If enough kids don’t get their routine vaccinations, doctors warned that outbreaks of preventable disease could be more likely in following years.

“We hope not, but we sort of expect that to be true,” Bullwinkel said. “I worry that some of those preventable diseases will occur in outbreak situations in the coming year, as a result of that.”

A measles or whooping cough outbreak is the “worst-case scenario,” Udenberg said.

But Udenberg added that it’s almost universally possible to quickly get caught up on missed vaccines.

“I’m hopeful that with people social distancing and staying home, there’s less spread of illness in general,” Udenberg said. “I’m also hopeful people will come back to get vaccines they’ve missed.”

All three local pediatricians urged parents to consider bringing kids back to the clinic for in-person checkups or exams, if needed.

Chippewa Valley hospitals are screening patients at the door, requiring masks, separating patients within the building and sanitizing areas before and after appointments.

“We want to reassure folks that they’re probably safer coming into these locations, because we’re hypervigilant about those kinds of procedures that would reduce risk of transmitting virus between individuals,” Bullwinkel said. “I wouldn’t have any hesitation bringing my own children into the clinic. I definitely encourage families to come in.”

Udenberg agreed: “I’d say it’s absolutely safe to bring your kids to their pediatrician.”

To access Wisconsin’s Immunization Rate Dashboard, visit www.dhs.wisconsin.gov/immunization/rate-dashboard.htm.

Contact: 715-833-9206, sarah.seifert@ecpc.com, @sarahaseifert on Twitter

Sarah Seifert is the L-T's education and health reporter. She has worked as a journalist in the Chippewa Valley since 2017 and joined the L-T in 2019. Get in touch at sarah.seifert@ecpc.com or on Twitter @sarahaseifert.