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MHS emphasizes importance of vaccinations

Healthcare worker giving vaccine to soldier; both wearing masks Navy Seaman Jared Doherty administers a vaccine to a Marine with the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit during an exercise at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, California, to increase theater force health protection readiness. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Patrick Crosley)

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The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted everyday routines, including keeping up with health care appointments for non-emergency needs such as vaccinations. And while physically attending day care, secondary school, and university campuses this fall remains undecided in many locales, Military Health System immunization experts recommend that parents start thinking about their children's vaccination requirements now.

These MHS experts will answer beneficiaries' questions about vaccinations during a "Chat with TRICARE" real-time event, 3-4 p.m. EDT Thursday, July 23, on the TRICARE Facebook page. Participating are Air Force Col. (Dr.) Tonya S. Rans, chief of the Defense Health Agency's Immunization Healthcare Division; Air Force Lt. Col. (Dr.) Ruth Brenner, division deputy chief; and Ann Morse, a family nurse  practitioner and registered nurse with the division's North Atlantic Region Vaccine Safety Hub’s Satellite Office at Naval Medical Center Portsmouth, Virginia.

"To provide the best protection and prevent disease, vaccines are designed to be administered in a certain number of doses over a certain period of time," said Catherine Skerrett, an advance practice registered nurse and family nurse practitioner with the division's Central Region Vaccine Safety Hub.

"When a vaccine dose is missed, a person may not be fully protected," she said.

For those beneficiaries who may have missed vaccine doses during the pandemic, "a catch-up vaccine schedule provides the best protection against disease as quickly as possible," Skerrett said. "Working with your provider, this schedule is individualized."

The catch-up vaccine schedule is based on the number of doses in a series, any doses already received, the person's age at previous dose and current age, and the minimum interval that's usually permitted between doses, she said.

Skerrett also notes that immunization requirements for enrolling in day care and K-12 schools are determined by each state, following recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Colleges and universities may require immunizations in addition to these state mandates, she said.

For example, among the vaccines that some states require are for hepatitis A, which is a two-dose series, and hepatitis B, a three-dose series. Both hepatitis A and B are serious diseases caused by a virus that attacks the liver.

In addition, 24 states require the meningococcal vaccine for incoming college students, Skerrett said. Meningococcal disease is caused by a bacteria that's spread through respiratory and throat secretions, according to the CDC. It can lead to serious and even deadly infections of the brain, spinal cord, and bloodstream.

Diseases other than COVID-19 "have not gone away, and we need to keep preventing those other infections by immunizing ourselves and our children,” said Army Col. (Dr.) Brian D. Robertson, chief of Allergy and Immunology Service at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland. The service began a drive-up immunization clinic in May to serve beneficiaries during the pandemic.

The clinic was set up as a temporary tent structure in a parking lot to prevent the possible spread of COVID-19 within the hospital. It offers all immunizations typically given in the indoor clinic.

At other MTFs, the primary care clinics are reviewing data to see which beneficiaries' immunizations are overdue, and developing plans to reach out to schedule a time and location to provide immunizations safely, said Regina Julian, chief of the Defense Health Agency's Healthcare Optimization Division.

“Ensuring our pediatric population is up-to-date on their needed immunizations is a major DHA priority," Julian said. She recommends beneficiaries check their MTF's webpage or social media page for any updates. In addition, she encourages beneficiaries to contact their MTFs directly by calling the appointing center or immunizations clinic, or by sending a secure message to their health care team to find out the process for getting caught up on immunizations.

For beneficiaries interested in participating in the live Q&A, MHS experts offer the following guidelines:

  • Don't post personally identifiable information.
  • Don't refer to any specific health conditions or names of other individuals.
  • Stay on topic, be respectful, and tell the truth.
  • Add value to the conversation.
  • Don't spam by sending irrelevant or unsolicited messages.

More information about participating in the live chat can be found on the MHS social media webpage.

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