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Legislature needs an emergency hearing on vaccines – for COVID-19 and the flu

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As we attempt to mitigate the widespread effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, our legislators must address several urgent issues.

It’s critical that we encourage the early adoption of any successfully developed COVID-19 vaccine. We must promote the widespread use of the vaccines we already have – in particular, the flu vaccine, before this year’s flu season begins. And we need to curb growing vaccine hesitancy while putting systems in place to facilitate and manage the use of vaccines.

The convergence of this fall’s flu season with a second wave of COVID-19 infections could be disastrous. Since influenza and COVID-19 have similar symptoms, people will likely misattribute them and clog healthcare systems. Patients will need to be tested for both viruses, placing a strain on personnel and supplies.

If the flu season is severe with a high rate of hospitalization, combined with COVID-19, this could quickly overburden hospitals. Although the flu vaccine does not provide 100% protection, it reduces symptoms and the likelihood of hospitalization. We need to vaccinate all eligible Californians against the flu now.

During the coronavirus pandemic, childhood vaccination rates have fallen dramatically in California, nationally and globally, fueling concerns of outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases.

This April, vaccine doses given to California children fell by more than 40% compared to the previous year. Parents have avoided doctor’s offices, fearing COVID-19 exposure, but the risk is low with the numerous precautions in place. We could soon be facing outbreaks of measles and chickenpox alongside COVID-19.

This backlog of missed vaccinations only heightens the urgency of improving California’s immunization registries. These databases keep track of vaccinations and will play a key part in children catching up on vaccinations, as well as the uptake of an eventual COVID-19 vaccine.

In California, many providers are required to input all vaccination information, but there are large gaps in reporting, and registries aren’t sufficiently accessible to parents and those who have been vaccinated. Exacerbating the concern, vaccines against COVID-19 will likely require two doses given about a month apart and come in several types.

Without a thorough centralized system keeping track of who got what vaccine and when, vaccine distribution will become chaotic. Improved registries would also allow us to identify and target areas where vaccination compliance is lacking. To navigate COVID-19’s impacts, California’s immunization registries require legislators’ immediate attention.

Further compounding the unnecessary toll of preventable illnesses in California are the low rates of human papillomavirus vaccination, which continue to result in increased cancer cases and significant costs to the state. A recent UCLA study suggested that if 99.5% of California’s population were fully vaccinated against HPV, approximately 74% of HPV-related cancer cases – and the huge associated economic burdens on the health care system – would be averted. It’s time for the state Legislature to require HPV vaccination for all young Californians as a condition of school entry.

All of these concerns are tied to the overarching problem of growing vaccine hesitancy, something that threatens all Californians’ health. This has been furthered by the widespread distribution of vaccine misinformation, which has been allowed to grow and fester unchecked.

In addition to witnessing outbreaks of once-eliminated diseases due to under-vaccinated communities, we’re facing the alarming prospect that a significant portion of the population would refuse a COVID-19 vaccination. There’s a high likelihood that this would prevent us from attaining the level of herd immunity necessary to stem transmission and allow the disease’s devastating toll to continue to mount.

We urgently need new legislation that would support science-based community education to counteract the pernicious effects of the anti-vaccine movement and research to identify sources of vaccine hesitancy.

Our state leaders need to act decisively to protect the health of all Californians. As the current pandemic has shown us, vaccinations are crucial both in saving lives and averting economic catastrophe. With the flu season fast approaching, along with a possible second wave of COVID-19 infections, and hopefully a COVID-19 vaccine, there’s no time to waste. Legislators need to convene an emergency hearing on vaccines and methods of assuring their equitable use now.

Watch Now: Will the kids be all right?

Kelly Danielpour is a high school senior at Crossroads School in Santa Monica. She’s the founder of VaxTeen and works as an intern for Dr. Jeffrey Klausner, researching California’s vaccine policy. Klausner is a professor of Medicine and Public Health at the University of California, Los Angeles. He is a former medical officer for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and a former deputy health officer at the San Francisco Department of Public Health. They wrote this for CalMatters, a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s Capitol works and why it matters.

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