This story appeared in the News Advocate. Read the full story here.

Signs of a new season are upon us – bigger waves on the lake, cold winds, leafless trees and snowflakes. But before we all get out the winter sports gear and dig out the snow shovels, please think about first getting that flu shot and vaccinations for other diseases that typically show up when the weather turns chilly.

Part of Munson Healthcare Manistee Hospital’s role involves more than caring for the sick – it is actually helping prevent sickness. That is where vaccines come in.

While we continue to wait for a potential vaccine for COVID-19, the flu vaccine has already proven to be an effective way to limit that virus. While a flu vaccine will not protect against COVID-19, it does keep people out of hospitals, helps protect essential workers from the flu, and allows more resources to be used for COVID-19 patients then would be possible if there were a surge of flu cases. The CDC reports last year’s U.S. flu season claimed 22,000 lives, 189 of those were children.

It is important to do all we can to prevent any surges of that disease if there are new waves of COVID-19 ahead. This means guarding against whooping cough, mumps, and other threats for children and adults that typically show up in winter.

One thing we understand is that the necessary safety measures brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic earlier this year which included office/clinic closings and shelter-in-place requests, have led to an unintentional dramatic drop in immunization rates for everyone, but particularly among children.

In Michigan, the number of childhood vaccines administered dropped by as much as 22% during the coronavirus pandemic, according to a CDC report from earlier this summer. The CDC also reported earlier this year that fewer than half (49.7%) of 5-month-old children were up-to-date on all recommended immunizations, as compared to the 67.3% average in 2016-2019.

Additionally, the number of non-influenza vaccines administered and reported for children aged 18 and under dropped by 21.5% between January and April 2020, when compared to similar periods in 2018 and 2019, also according to the CDC.

These statistics are very concerning to members of the Northern Michigan Vaccine Preventable Disease Task Force — a collaboration among experts from Benzie-Leelanau District Health Department, Grand Traverse County Health Department, Health Department of Northwest Michigan, Munson Healthcare, the Northern Physicians Organization (NPO) and Wexford Physician Hospital Organization (PHO).

Vaccines continue to remain one of the single most effective deterrents to disease outbreaks, and in some cases — such as measles, mumps and polio — the only protection. These vaccines work with your child’s natural defenses to help them safely develop long-term protection from diseases.

As we continue to face COVID-19 and potential new waves of outbreaks in the coming months, focusing on general disease prevention and immunizations, especially in our children, is more critical than ever. Please consider calling your primary care provider to schedule up-to-date immunizations, especially for children ages 18 years and under.

Offices and clinics are clean, safe and incorporating all safety precautions including health screenings of both patients and staff, routine cleaning and disinfecting of facilities, universal masking and staggered appointments to promote social distancing.

Vaccines aren’t just for kids. Adults need to get their annual flu shot and may need vaccines to protect against whooping cough, pneumonia and shingles. Ask your doctor about vaccines you may need for your age, health conditions, job or lifestyle.

Families without insurance may be able to get vaccinations at a lower or no cost. For more information got to Vaccinateyourfamily.org/paying-for-vaccines.

These days are challenging, but when we all do our part to protect those around us through vaccinations, masking, social distancing, and appropriate hand hygiene, we are taking back our communities from these unseen invaders and positioning ourselves to keep things as open and back to normal as possible until a vaccine for SARS-COV-2 is available.

Thank you for helping keep the Manistee region healthy and safe.

Brian McComb, D.O. is chief medical officer of Munson Healthcare Manistee Hospital.