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In the midst of a pandemic, parents are social distancing from the doctor’s office. The unknowns of COVID-19 and recent case reports of pediatric complications from the disease have caused many parents to avoid small indoor spaces and physical contact, and the pediatrician’s office is no exception.

To keep kids virus-free, many parents are opting for virtual checkups and delaying routine in-person well-child visits with their local pediatrician. But as the pandemic continues to linger, and social distancing looks like a long-term norm, many ask when it will be safe to see their child’s pediatrician in-person. Going to the doctor’s office becomes a trade-off: balancing the health benefits of medical care with the risks of going to a medical office. While there are risks of disease spread in indoor spaces, the routine well-child visit is incredibly important to protecting a child’s health. This critical aspect of pediatric care cannot wait until after the pandemic passes.

The well-child visit revolves around one important concept: prevention. At each visit, the pediatrician tracks growth and development to check that children are hitting developmental milestones on time by completing a thorough history and physical exam. This process allows pediatricians to catch medical and developmental concerns early and to treat them before they progress, with higher chances of success and a cure. While some aspects of this process can be addressed in virtual visits, a high-quality physical exam can only be done in-person, alongside another key element of prevention: vaccination.

As visits to pediatricians have dropped, vaccination rates have also dropped significantly. The CDC reports a near 90% drop in some types of vaccinations. Low vaccination rates in the community can compromise the promise of herd immunity, leaving large numbers of children unprotected from diseases that could spread among the unvaccinated.

Vaccination protects children against serious diseases such as measles, polio, whooping cough, tetanus and many others. Vaccines work in two ways: they provide individual immunity, which protects a child from getting a disease, and herd immunity, which prevents a disease from spreading within a community to people who can’t get the vaccine because of their age or an underlying medical condition.

Routine childhood vaccines are safe and very effective. For example, the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine is 97% effective against measles and the polio vaccine is more than 99% effective against polio.

As children begin to gather again at schools, daycare centers, and other activities, up-to-date vaccination will become even more important. If enough children aren’t vaccinated, close physical contact may provide an opportunity for the spread of life-threatening diseases such as measles. As reopening slowly begins in many parts of the country, vaccine-preventable diseases may again start to circulate, and without the safety-net of herd immunity, many children will be at higher risk of getting serious vaccine-preventable illnesses. During this pandemic, the case for vaccination has become stronger than ever: vaccines can protect your child at a time when they need it most.

Concerned about the risk of contracting COVID-19 during your child’s wellness visit? The good news is that pediatricians have been taking steps to prevent the spread of disease in medical offices through measures that include scheduling well visits in the morning and sick visits in the afternoon; seeing families via telemedicine whenever possible; disinfecting medical instruments and surfaces between visits; performing temperature checks at the office’s entrance; pre-screening all families for symptoms of COVID-19 over the phone prior to their visit; and mandating that masks be worn at all times.

Pediatricians have a responsibility to protect your child from COVID-19, from vaccine-preventable diseases, and from other illnesses and medical problems. While COVID-19 dominates the news and inspires fear, the on-time in-person well-child visit remains crucial for ensuring your child’s long-term health.

The decision to see a pediatrician in a pandemic is a very personal choice for families. We hope that raising awareness of the importance of the well-child visit and knowing how much is being done to make medical visits safe will help make that choice a little easier.