Robert “Bobcat” Bonagura and his wife Kat McCarthy recently welcomed their daughter, Lily McCarthy-Bonagura, into the world.
Lily, only 5 weeks old, hasn’t had many vaccinations, but when the time comes, she will be getting all the ones Bonagura and McCarthy’s doctor recommends.
“In general, we trust science and take whatever’s recommended by our doctors and health care professionals,” Bonagura said.
Many Cortland County parents came to the same conclusion — a recent report found the county has one of the highest vaccination rates in the state for children up to 2 years old.
While Cortland County has some of the highest rates, access to vaccinations, vaccine hesitancy, religious beliefs and other reasons can factor into a county’s vaccination rate.
Getting vaccinated, though, is the best way for people to protect each other, said Dr. Jana Shaw, a professor of pediatrics at Upstate Medical University in Syracuse.
“Vaccines help the individual and those around you,” she said.
According to the report by the New York State Health Foundation, based on 2020 data from 122,235 children, Cortland County had the seventh-highest vaccination rating for 2-year-olds:
1. Livingston – 82.2%
2. Lewis – 81.7%
3. Wayne – 81.4%
4. Warren – 81.3%
5. Clinton – 80.9%
6. Oswego – 80.5%
7. Cortland – 80.4%
8. St. Lawrence – 78.5%
9. Saratoga – 78%
10. Monroe – 77.4%
Children were vaccinated with seven vaccines: diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis; polio; hepatitis B; measles, mumps and rubella; haemophilus influenzae type B; chickenpox; pneumococcal disease.
The national average for the sevenvaccine series is 68.3%, reports the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, up from 65.9% in 2010. The percentage has been stable since 2013.
The report’s statewide key findings from 2018 to 2020:
• Vaccination rates completed by children at age 2 increased from 59.4% in 2018 to 64.5% in 2020.
• Vaccination rates improved for children of all ethnicities and races from 2018 to 2020.
• More than half of the state’s counties fell below the state’s goal of 70.5% vaccination rate. Rockland County had the lowest rate of vaccination at 42%, 40 points lower than Livingston County, the highest.
• The lowest regional rates of vaccination were found in the Lower Hudson and Long Island regions (54% and 59%, respectively).
“Recent changes to the requirements for school-based vaccines may be partially accountable for the increase in vaccination coverage during the 2020 cohort of children studied,” the report said, referring to a 2019 state elimination of all non-medical exemptions for vaccination requirements.
Notably, the foundation said the highest rates of religious exemptions came from the Lower Hudson and Long Island regions, which had the lowest regional vaccination rates.
PROTECTING THEMSELVES, OTHERS
Growing up as a kid, Bonagura got all the vaccinations that were required to go to school and that were recommended by his doctor, he said.
Now, 41 and with a child of his own, Bonagura said he and his wife will do the same for Lily.
As she is only 5 weeks old, Bonagura said Lily has only had a few basic vaccines, such as one for hepatitis B.
“She’s too young to get most, but we do plan on getting what the doctor recommends,” he said.
That includes the vaccine for COVID-19.
When the time comes for younger children to be able to get the vaccine, Bonagura said Lily will get the shot. Bonagura’s and McCarthy’s decision comes from their research and faith in the medical professionals.
“We just trust that it’s what’s best for the child and best for the community,” he said.
With all vaccines, there is a certain amount of risk that comes when taking it, Bonagura said. “But overall, it’s for the greater good.”
FINDING AND FILLING THE GAPS
Shaw, the professor of pediatrics at Upstate Medical University, said the increases in vaccination rates — even during the pandemic last year — were encouraging signs for state public health, but disparities between racial groups remain an issue.
Among the 2020 data, white children had the highest vaccination coverage (69.4%) followed by Asian (67.4%), Hispanic or Latino (64.7%) and Black or African-American (62%), the report found.
Between 2018 and 2020, progress had been made closing the gap between Asian children and white children, the report states. The gap remained consistent between white kids and Hispanic or Latino kids, but increased slightly between Black or African-American and white children.
“That still remains a concern,” Shaw said.
Several reasons may explain why vaccination rates fluctuate across the state. For some, there is vaccine hesitancy, stemming from religious beliefs or misinformation about vaccines.
Rockland County, the county with the lowest rate of vaccination at 42%, has a large Orthodox Jewish community, where religious beliefs can influence decisions to get vaccinated, Shaw said.
Other people who are vaccine- hesitant may believe that because their children haven’t gotten sick from a disease and that other children around theirs are vaccinated, it is not needed.
“Those are unfortunately dangerous reasons that lead to children not being vaccinated,” Shaw said.
She noted the state removed non-medical vaccination exemptions for students attending schools in 2019 to help combat measles during a nationwide outbreak, with the focus on lower vaccinated areas of the state.
For others, vaccination is an issue of access.
Black or African-American families, especially, face barriers such as not having viable transportation to get to a doctor’s office or not having insurance to cover the cost of vaccinations, Shaw said.
Shaw proposed two solutions:
• Doctors and other medical providers who provide vaccinations can expand availability to families, such as longer hours or taking visits on weekends. Additionally, offering vaccinations while people are visiting for other reasons can help.
• Doctors can be trained on how to communicate more effectively with patients and work on how to debunk misinformation on vaccines and overcome vaccine hesitancy.
The second, especially, may be easier said than done because a national labor shortage is affecting the number of doctors available and the time they have to improve skills, she said.
But getting vaccinated, Shaw said, is the best way for people to protect themselves and others, along with preventing eradicated diseases from re-emerging.
“We need to continue to ensure that everyone who can be vaccinated is vaccinated,” she said.