As the COVID-19 pandemic continues into 2021, hesitancy in tending to routine health care isn’t just affecting adults, it is having an impact on children, too, as a large percentage have missed well-child appointments due to the pandemic.
“While visits have significantly increased since last spring’s shutdown, the number of well-child visits is still lower than pre-pandemic levels,” says UCLA pediatrician Carlos Lerner, MD. Though several “unknowns” have contributed to the confusion many parents are experiencing during this time, skipping preventive pediatric visits could lead to health consequences down the road, he says.
“I do think families are having to make difficult choices with confusing information presented to them, in terms of what activities to continue and what not to resume,” Dr. Lerner says. Families and caretakers should prioritize well-child or wellness visits, especially when it comes to vaccinations.
With vaccination rates declining due to the pandemic, Dr. Lerner says there is an increasing risk of other diseases spreading in the community. “This is a particular time to make sure that we’re protecting children from other diseases, such as measles,” he says. “For the youngest of babies, whooping cough and influenza remain significant concerns and are, for them, potentially more dangerous than COVID-19.”
Apart from routine vaccinations, Dr. Lerner says there are many other reasons that parents should continue wellness visits for their children, including assessments for behavioral and mental health, growth and nutrition.
For example, obesity is of increasing concern, Dr. Lerner says. “Many kids are more sedentary [during the pandemic], spending more time in front of screens and may be eating more while at home,” he says.
To address this issue, Sound Body Sound Mind, a UCLA Health program to combat childhood obesity in middle and high schools, shifted its focus to provide an online physical and education curriculum for children at home. “Traditionally, schools serve as a backstop for many health concerns,” says Matt Flesock, director of the program. “Without in-person physical education, we’ve had to shift toward more holistic ways for teaching kids how to stay active, such as hiking, yoga and even dancing at home.”
Child anxiety also is of concern after months of remote education, lack of interaction with friends and other pandemic-driven stressors. Kate Sheehan, managing director of the UCLA Center for Child Anxiety, Resilience, Education and Support, says that anxiety can make kids argumentative, illogical and angry. Some children may become avoidant or lash out in a tantrum.
Dr. Lerner says that after families and caretakers, schools are where many health concerns may come to light. “It could be something as simple as not being able to see the behavior or speech issues,” he says. “In some cases, the schools help us identify more serious issues that may be going on in the home. With remote learning, we’ve really lost one of the few remaining sources of expert contact with the child.”
As schools stop having that day-to-day contact with kids, pediatricians serve as an important safety net for children, which is why it is important to stay in communication with them, Dr. Lerner says. He notes that most pediatricians are able to schedule telehealth or virtual visits, as well as communicate over the phone. He says even if a parent is unsure if something is worth coming in for, it is a good idea to call. “You don’t have to make this decision alone,” he says.