Come fall every year, healthcare providers and public health officials urge people to get a flu vaccine. And every year…a lot of people don’t get a flu vaccine. In fact, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), less than half of the adults in the United States were vaccinated against the flu in every year of the 2010s. The numbers are a bit better for children, but still more than one-third of children failed to get vaccinated every year, with teenagers in particular lagging behind.
Unless you’ve been living in a cave or on a desert island since the beginning of 2020, you are aware that this year has been different from any other in our lifetimes. The COVID-19 pandemic has caused many thousands of deaths, serious long-term illness, and economic devastation. One reason given for shutting down the economy was to prevent hospitals from being overwhelmed by coronavirus patients. With the COVID outbreak continuing across the country through the summer, flu season presents a new danger. The flu causes some of the same symptoms as COVID in those infected – and it’s even possible to have both illnesses at the same time. In addition, the CDC estimates that the flu resulted in between 140,000 to 960,000 hospitalizations and 12,000 to 79,000 deaths each year since 2010. As CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield said recently: “The real risk is that we’re going to have two circulating respiratory pathogens at the same time.” Getting a flu vaccine, he added, “may make available a hospital bed for somebody else that really needs it for COVID.”
So why don’t most adults get a vaccine when it is widely available at pharmacies and doctors’ offices and typically free of charge for those with health insurance? In a survey commissioned by the American Academy of Family Physicians, many people believed inaccurate information about the flu, including underestimating its dangers and being concerned that the flu vaccine causes the flu or serious side effects (it doesn’t). The same survey shows that an alarming number of people have adopted general anti-vaccination beliefs, with younger adults most frequently saying they agree with some aspects of the anti-vaccination movement. And some people simply think the vaccine doesn’t work.
It is true that the flu vaccine is never perfect. Because flu viruses are constantly changing, scientists need to develop a new vaccine every year that closely matches the viruses predicted to be most common during an upcoming flu season. The result is that some annual vaccines prove more effective than others. Yet even with limitations on how effective the flu vaccine is, it can still reduce the risk of flu illness by between 40 percent and 60 percent and help avert thousands of deaths and tens of thousands of hospitalization every year. Getting a flu vaccine also can reduce the severity of flu symptoms for those who do get sick.
As the saying goes, we shouldn’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Seat belts don’t prevent every death and injury in auto accidents, but they have saved hundreds of thousands of lives. Luckily, more than 90 percent of people now wear seat belts — an increase from only 11 percent in 1981. We likely won’t pass laws mandating flu vaccines as we did for seat belt use — or force people who don’t get vaccinated to listen to that annoying dinging sound that comes on when someone doesn’t buckle up. But we can still do a lot to persuade more people to get a flu vaccine this fall.
In order to take any health action, people need to know its benefits, overcome any barriers, and feel that making the effort will help them avoid a negative outcome. Therefore, health professionals should promote the benefits and availability of the flu vaccine as well as the dangers it could prevent in the 2020 flu season with COVID still prevalent. Since people have been avoiding routine medical care out of fear of contracting COVID, we also should reassure them that doctors’ offices and pharmacies are following procedures to reduce the risk of exposure, including possible drive-through flu shots that will reduce contact with other people as much as possible.
Most people have been willing to take extraordinary measures to slow the spread of COVID. With flu season approaching, now is the time to ask people to take another step to help protect them and their loved ones. As we await a COVID vaccine that could put the hardships and suffering we’ve experienced this year behind us, everyone should know that a vaccine is available that could prevent the rest of 2020 from getting a lot worse.
To learn more about how to navigate the current healthcare landscape and prepare for the upcoming flu season, register for our upcoming webinar: “The Flu-COVID Collision: Best Practices to Keep Your Population Healthy This Fall.”