GSK reveals 26M Americans skipped routine vaccinations last year, quantifying widely held suspicions

Americans skipped a lot of vaccine appointments last year—and now GlaxoSmithKline has the numbers to prove it.

More than 26 million doses of recommended vaccines were missed from January through November. By age, adolescents missed 8.8 million vaccines and adults missed another 17.2 million, according to a claims analysis by Avalere Health commissioned by GSK.

Overall non-influenza vaccine claims dropped 13% to 35% for adolescents and 17% to 40% for adults.

Avalere analyzed claims data from commercial insurers, Medicare and Medicaid for the first nine months of 2020, comparing it to the same time period the previous year.

“I was frankly surprised,” Thomas Breuer, chief medical officer for GSK Vaccines, said. “We knew it was happening, but to see the numbers right in front of you … essentially across a broad spectrum of vaccines was quite eye-opening.”

While media outlets and public health officials have been worried about vaccination rates dropping during the pandemic, the GSK study is one of the first to quantify the deficit in real-world numbers.

A smaller-scale study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention out Thursday found child and adolescent vaccinations dropped by as much as 70% during March, April and May 2020. The study of 10 jurisdictions across the country reported a rebound in kids' vaccinations from June through September, but not enough to make up for the earlier dropoff. 

In one example, HPV doses for children aged 9–12 years and adolescents aged 13–17 years fell by a median 64% and 72%, respectively, in the March-through-May 2020 period compared with the same timeframe in 2018 and 2019.

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Now, GSK is focused on getting the data out to medical associations, public health officials, physicians and consumers. Even though vaccination rates are likely increasing now as physicians’ offices open more fully, the gap left by the pandemic needs to be addressed, Breuer said.

“Healthcare providers are one audience, but consumers, (like) mothers who are the chief executive officers of families and usually in charge of family vaccinations, should know and should be reminded. For example, before students go back to university,” he said.

Next week, Avalare will present the data at the Department of Health and Human Service’s National Vaccine Advisory Committee meeting.

The claims data also found that even though health officials warned about a potential “twindemic” of COVID-19 and influenza at the same time, flu vaccination rates were still lower than the previous year. Americans did get flu shots at a higher rate in August and September, but the insurance data shows the numbers leveling off in October and dropping in November.

As expected, the data showed a severe drop across all vaccinations in April 2020, with a steady increase across adolescents and adults since then. However, by November, the most recent claims data analysis, the number of claims still hadn't reached pre-pandemic January and February levels, according to Avalere charts.

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One way GSK hopes vaccination rates will increase is through regular vaccinations given alongside COVID-19 vaccines.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently changed it guidance and now recommends that people get their regularly scheduled vaccines at the same time as the COVID-19 vaccines. That’s a change from earlier guidance, when the CDC advised giving COVID-19 vaccines alone, leaving a 14-day space before and after.

While the new data and public outreach from GSK and Avalere aims to educate people, GSK is also running separate vaccine awareness campaigns for shingles, meningitis B and hepatitis A.

During the pandemic, GSK created an umbrella campaign, “Brought to You by Vaccines,” reminding people of the good health they enjoy because of immunizations. However, the ad campaign, targeting the 50-plus crowd, will end this month.