11:55 AM

Pierce: Time to finish the last bit of summer homework


Christopher Pierce, M.D., is Interim Chair of Carilion Clinic's Department of Pediatrics.


The traditional start of school later this summer also comes with traditional preparations, including your child’s health check-up and catching up on required vaccinations. And if you wait too long to schedule these, you may be out of luck when the school bell rings. 

The last few weeks of summer, doctor offices, and clinics get very busy trying to schedule visits before the school year starts. Early scheduling will help you avoid the mad rush at the end of the summer. There is no reason to wait on vaccines or a regular check-up – early in the summer is as good as late summer so get it scheduled. 

You can get your child’s sports physical and wellness checkup right now. That includes checking whether your child is up to date on their vaccinations. These vaccines, state-required for school aged children, are critical to their health and well-being. They can help prevent communicable illnesses that often spread when children and teens gather back in large groups at school. 

Virginia requires all children entering daycare, public and private schools to give proof of vaccination before entering daycare, Kindergarten, 7th and 12th grades. These immunizations prevent the spread of serious communicable diseases such as diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis, measles, and more. The schedules are based on the recommendations of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), American Academy of Pediatrics, and American Academy of Family Physicians. 

Most students entering school for the first time will receive the vaccines they need from their healthcare provider or local health department prior to school entry in kindergarten. Rising 7th graders and 12th graders will need additional vaccines. You can visit VDH’s “one-stop-shop” resource at vdh.virginia.gov/backtoschool to find out which immunizations and healthcare services your child may need for school entrance and sports physical requirements. Talk to your healthcare provider if you have additional questions. 

You don’t always hear about it, but there are outbreaks, like measles periodically in the United States and, due to the pandemic, these can be exacerbated because vaccination rates are down. Pediatric immunization rates, which reached as high as 98% in 2008, dropped sharply during the pandemic and have not yet returned to acceptable levels. 

But while we still need to increase immunization uptake to protect our children and those around them, the good news is that Virginia is starting to see a rebound, with nearly 90% of kindergartners meeting school immunization requirements for the 2022-2023 school year. And compliance among 7th and 12th graders is also improving to 91% and 80%, respectively. 

The Virginia Department of Health does a wonderful job of getting vaccines to families, but you should also make sure that your child sees a physician for a regular check- up to make sure they are coming along developmentally both physically and mentally. 

The pandemic took a toll on the development of children. Some of my colleagues report they have seen as much as a two-year lag in development post pandemic. The pandemic has also impacted mental health and well-being particularly among pre-teens and teenagers. Our regular check-ups include screening for anxiety and depression. Even with younger children, early intervention can be vital. 

The pandemic caused an interruption in regular dental, health and well care. People were concerned, even downright scared, to go to the doctor’s office. As a result, many of our patients fell behind on vaccines, well care and regular check-ups. Now we are playing catchup. A good example is the HPV vaccine – the only vaccine that specifically helps protect children from several types of cancer later in life. We’ve been seeing a significant dip in 13-year-olds that haven’t completed their HPV vaccinations series which should be started before entering 7th grade. 

On the positive side, the pandemic helped prove the effectiveness of handwashing, covering coughs and sneezes and staying home when you are sick in preventing the spread of viruses. I encourage my patients to continue to practice these good hygiene steps. 

The past few years have shown that the seasonality of viruses such as the flu and RSV have changed, with last year’s earlier onset of both viruses of specific note. And we may see that again this year. So, mark your calendars to get your flu shot early this fall. 

Bottom line, you have summer homework to do because children who do not meet the vaccination requirements for school won’t be able to start on time.