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Colorado public health officials ramp up vaccination outreach ahead of new school year

The Mobile Public Health Clinic Program’s mission is to bridge gaps in access to disease control and public health services.
The Mobile Public Health Clinic Program’s mission is to bridge gaps in access to disease control and public health services.

According to recent state data, vaccination rates in Colorado for K-12 schools are still below pre-pandemic levels. The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment hopes to reverse that trend. The agency sent out notices to parents whose children are behind on vaccines. Its mobile public health clinic is also hitting the road this summer to provide vaccines in undeserved areas.

Laura Palmisano spoke to Colorado State Epidemiologist Rachel Herlihy about the agency's effort to increase vaccination rates before the start of the next school year.

Rachel Herlihy: Thankfully, we have not seen an increase in vaccine-preventable diseases like measles or polio, but we know in particular measles is an infectious disease where there has been a significant increase in cases in the last year compared to many years previous and that's true in the U.S., but also in Europe.

Colorado is not without risk when it comes to outbreaks of measles and that has to do with the fact that when you look at our overall vaccination rates for the MMR vaccine - which is the measles, mumps, [and] rubella vaccine - the vaccination rate is well below that community level of protection that we want to see. We believe that the vaccination rate we need to see to protect our community from outbreaks is probably around 95 percent and Colorado is at 90 percent or below depending on which measure you look at. And we know that that value is much lower when you look at certain communities or even certain church groups, playgroups, [and] schools. We know that those pockets of underimmunization can be quite substantial where 50 percent or fewer even of children might be protected.

Laura Palmisano: When looking at vaccination rates for K-12 schools last year in Colorado, some school districts, like Hinsdale County and Dolores County, have vaccination rates under 80 percent. There's also a handful of districts across the state, like in Delta, Gunnison, Archuleta, and Albert counties with vaccination rates below 90 percent. Why would this concern you as an epidemiologist?

Herlihy: Yes, so it comes down to two things. First, it's individual protection so we know that when fewer children are vaccinated, those children are going to be susceptible to vaccine-preventable diseases. And those can be, you know, diseases like chickenpox or pertussis or measles; multiple infections. And so that means that those children are going to be susceptible to infection, potentially severe infection, and complications of those infections, including hospitalization.

But then there's also the community benefit of having a high proportion of a population vaccinated, which can protect the overall community. Which means protecting the most vulnerable people in a community who perhaps may not be able to receive a particular vaccine or older members of a community who are going to be particularly susceptible to severe disease if they become infected. And then it's also protecting communities from the significant disruption that an outbreak can cause.

We know that outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases in schools can be incredibly disruptive in classrooms for students and loss of education. So, you know, a lot of reasons why we want our vaccination rates to be high.

Palmisano: What do you tell parents who are concerned about the safety of vaccines?

Herlihy: Yeah, I think it's important for parents to have the information they need to make the best-informed decisions for themselves and their children. And so really encourage parents to find reliable sources of information to help with their decision-making.

And, of course, talking to your primary care provider, your pediatrician, and your family practice provider is going to be one of the most important sources of information for you and your family. So certainly encourage that.

Palmisano: How is the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment working to increase vaccination rates?

Herlihy: We are working to ensure that parents know that their children are behind on vaccines when that is the case. The summertime now, when it's a little bit quieter before the hectic school year begins, is the perfect time to make sure that kids are up to date on their vaccines. And so certainly recommend that parents check in now with their healthcare provider or you can check online with our immunization registry to see if your kids are up to date.

And to help with that, one of the things that we have been doing here in Colorado is sending out reminder messages to parents if their kids are behind on vaccines. We do that by text message and email. We've also mailed postcards to families to make sure that families know that their children are behind on vaccines. We also have done a number of outreach campaigns in multiple languages to encourage parents and guardians to have the information they need to make decisions about vaccines.

And then we also have a mobile public health clinic programthat goes to the corners of the state where health care services might be less available or places where we noticed that immunization rates are lower or that we may have communities that have less access to health care for a variety of reasons.

Laura joined KVNF in 2014. She was the news director for two years and now works as a freelance reporter covering Colorado's Western Slope. Laura is an award-winning journalist with work recognized by the Society of Professional Journalists, Colorado Broadcasters Association, and RTDNA. In 2015, she was a fellow for the Institute for Justice & Journalism. Her fellowship project, a three-part series on the Karen refugee community in Delta, Colorado, received a regional Edward R. Murrow Award.