Opinion

During this Pandemic, It’s Time to Expand Children’s Access to Vaccines

We need all hands on deck to defeat the resilient coronavirus. Yet several groups in organized medicine are still fighting to deny parents the right to choose where their children get their childhood vaccines — when broader access to protective vaccines is critical for our children to safely attend school or get childcare. Patient choice, access and practitioner collaboration must be our focus.

The U.S. Department of Health Human Services recently did a great thing for the American public, announcing a new policy that standardizes access to childhood vaccines across all states and territories. HHS said that during this pandemic, pharmacists may administer certain licensed or authorized vaccines recommended for children ages 3-18, even where state laws and regulations are more restrictive. 

This bold action is based upon clear logic. Even prior to the COVID pandemic, there were documented shortages of primary care providers, and vaccination rates using traditional approaches were insufficient to meet established national goals, especially among adolescents

Since the start of the pandemic, there has been a troubling drop in routine childhood vaccinations, because families are not going to the medical office, due to fear of infection or the loss or reduction of insurance coverage. An alarming number of medical practices have closed, many of them for good, or are operating with reduced hours. In this current environment, it only makes sense to give parents more ways to protect their children from vaccine-preventable diseases, including the seasonal flu. 

Maintaining arbitrary barriers, as proposed by some medical organizations, fails to recognize these realities. For decades pharmacists have demonstrated their ability to provide important health care services like immunizations and improve public health outcomes. 

Here are the facts:

  • Approximately half the states already impose no age limits on pharmacists’ administration of childhood vaccines, with no ill effects
  • Pharmacists are the most accessible health providers in the nation – 90 percent of Americans live within 5 miles of a pharmacy. Even one of the American Medical Association’s own journals noted recently that a senior with Medicare visits a pharmacy 13 times per year on average, but only goes to a doctor’s office seven times.
  • Pharmacists are extremely effective at helping to end public health emergencies. A study in the journal Disaster Medicine and Public Health Preparedness reported that when community pharmacists were involved in vaccinating the public for the H1N1 flu about a decade ago, the time it took to achieve 80 percent vaccination coverage was shortened by seven weeks. That’s the kind of success story we will need for this year’s flu and the COVID vaccines. The AMA’s own literature has noted positive health outcomes when pharmacists are an integral part of health care teams. And health care teams are not isolated to four walls.

Many physicians disagree with the leaders of organized medicine. In many hospitals and communities, physicians and pharmacists are working together to provide collaborative, team-based care. Physicians already value the role of pharmacists as partners in patient care. They realize that overall health care costs are reduced – and quality goes up – when pharmacists are essential members of the team. These physicians want more teamwork, not less.  Systems are in place, such as immunization registries, for the sharing of data among health care practitioners.

More than a dozen pharmacy organizations recently pledged last week to work closely with all immunization providers to achieve the health outcomes we all want for our communities. We have promised to coordinate our work, collaborate with them, and communicate and document all vaccinations provided (which we’re already doing, through immunization registries).

We applaud HHS for focusing on patients’ needs and providing them the right to choose where they get their vaccinations, whether it’s in a doctor’s office or a pharmacy. During the worst pandemic in a century, our nation’s health depends on it.

 

Scott J. Knoer, MS, PharmD, FASHP, is a pharmacist, and executive vice president and CEO of the American Pharmacists Association.

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