Well-Baby Visits & COVID-19

It’s understandable if you’ve been unsure how to handle your child’s wellness visits during the coronavirus pandemic. No parent wants to put their kids in harm’s way, and it may seem counterintuitive to take a healthy child to a pediatrician’s office for routine preventative care as public health officials are recommending that people do their best to stay home to avoid contracting COVID-19.

But, it’s more important than ever to keep routine checkups on your child’s calendar — and to attend those visits in person whenever possible. 

Early on in the pandemic, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommended that parents balance the benefit of attending a well visit and getting immunizations with the risk of exposure to other children and adults that might have COVID-19.

However, after witnessing a “significant drop” in necessary vaccinations and screenings, the AAP updated their guidance. Now, they recommend the following:

  • Well-child visits should occur in person whenever possible.
  • If a practice has successfully established telehealth services, virtual visits can occur if necessary, but should be followed by in-person visits.
  • Children who have missed immunizations during the pandemic should get caught up as soon as possible.

Why is it so important for children to go to wellness visits right now?

The number one reason to bring your kids to well visits is to stay up to date on their immunization schedule. Even during a pandemic, getting vaccinated against diseases like whooping cough and pneumococcal meningitis — preventable illnesses that can make young children very sick — is more important than ever.

Vaccines will prevent nearly 420 million illnesses among children born between 1994 and 2018, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), but they only work if kids actually get their shots.

During the chaos of the pandemic, “routine but critical vaccinations have been forgotten,” Rajeev Fernando, M.D., an infectious disease specialist at Stony Brook Southampton Hospital and member of the What to Expect Medical Review Board told us in a previous interview. “We need to catch up.”

According to data from the CDC, the number of child well visits dropped by about 50 percent from January to April 2020 compared to the same period last year. During that time, there were also fewer non-influenza vaccinations given out, especially the measles vaccine.

“For infants, if you push back one visit, you end up delaying their primary vaccine schedule, and those vaccines are really important to keep them healthy,” explains Patricia Garcia, M.D., a pediatrician and hospitalist at Connecticut Children’s. “Illness from vaccine-preventable illness can be very serious for young children.”

In addition to immunizations, in-person appointments also let your child’s pediatrician conduct a complete physical exam, as well as laboratory exams and other screenings if necessary.

“Children, including teens, need their regular checkups to make sure that their growth and development are progressing normally, to make sure they have a professional to speak to about any concerns and any topic (including behavior and nutrition), and, of course, to keep vaccines up-to-date to prevent the illnesses that we can prevent,” says Lauren Crosby, M.D., F.A.A.P., a pediatrician in Beverly Hills, California, and member of the What to Expect Medical Review Board.

What if your child has missed immunizations during the pandemic?

The pandemic has been challenging for everyone, but particularly parents — and you’re certainly in good company if your child missed a well visit for any reason this year. Now, however, the most important thing is to reach out to your child’s pediatrician as soon as possible to discuss her immunization schedule. Together, you can develop a plan to get your child back on track.

If you temporarily relocated during the pandemic, you may be able to connect with a local pediatrician to have your child vaccinated even if you have a virtual check-up with her regular doctor.

When should you opt for a telehealth appointment instead of an in-person visit?

According to Dr. Crosby, in-person appointments are almost always preferable, since they allow for a complete physical examination.

“That being said, there are some issues that can be addressed at least initially by a telehealth video visit, such as insect bites, eczema and some other rashes, conjunctivities, allergies, lifestyle coaching and certain medication refills,” she says.

If there’s an active coronavirus outbreak in your area and very strict stay-at-home orders are in place, yearly physicals may be temporarily postponed, she says. But, “pediatric offices have taken extra precautions to protect against the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus so in general, it is safe to go in,” she says.

Even if your child develops what seems like normal cold symptoms, “you should take them to see their pediatrician right away,” says Dr. Crosby. “In children, a mild cold could be COVID-19, so it’s best to check with your provider and follow their recommendations.”

How should you prepare for your child’s wellness visit during the pandemic?

Rest assured that doctor’s offices are taking extra steps to ensure patient safety. For example, your child’s pediatrician might be scheduling well and sick visits at different times of day, examining healthy and sick patients in separate areas of the clinic or even in different locations altogether.

Reach out to the office before your appointment to ask about any strategies they’re taking and what you should know before your visit (for example, maybe you’ll be asked to wait outside or in your car instead of the waiting room).

You should also take the same precuations at the pediatrician’s office as you would any other public setting during the pandemic, including:

  • Wearing a face mask. To improve the fit of your mask and further prevent the spread of the coronavirus, the CDC now recommends double-masking, such as by wearing a cloth mask over a medical procedure mask.
  • Having your child wear a mask if she is older than 2.
  • Practicing good hand hygiene (and always remember that hand sanitizer is not safe for babies).
  • Avoiding contact with high-touch surfaces such as doorknobs.
  • Maintaining a safe distance of at least six feet from others in the waiting room.

“Social distancing, mask wearing, handwashing and avoiding touching your face do work well to prevent the spread of COVID-19,” says Dr. Crosby. “Continue these habits and follow your local public health orders to do your part to stop the spread of this virus.”

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