With hospitals still confronting COVID-19, health experts worry about the impact the coming flu season could have on health care systems still recovering from the pandemic. Large numbers of people forgoing flu shots could increase the risk of widespread outbreaks, and public health officials are encouraging as many people as possible to get vaccinated prior to this year’s flu season, which peaks from December to February.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported a mild 2019-20 flu season in the U.S., ranging from 39 to 56 million cases, and resulting in up to 740,000 hospitalizations and from 24,000 to 62,000 deaths. Influenza shares certain symptoms with COVID-19, such as fever, cough, muscle aches, and fatigue, and can leave patients’ immune systems more vulnerable to the coronavirus.
The flu vaccine is rarely mandated in the U.S., but CDC Director Robert Redfield, MD, has urged corporate leaders to encourage employees to get vaccinated. The CDC typically purchases around 500,000 doses of the vaccine for uninsured adults, but has ordered an additional 9.3 million doses this year. The University of California system announced it is requiring all 230,000 employees and 280,000 students to get the flu vaccine by November 1.
Accessibility could be a roadblock to widespread vaccination. Many offices, schools, and other facilities that usually offer free vaccines are closed or allowing fewer people on-site to prevent the spread of COVID-19, so pharmacies and supermarkets are expected to play a larger role than in previous years. Walgreens, for example, plans to host off-site flu vaccine clinics in community centers and churches.
“Access is a problem for all adult vaccines,” said L. J. Tan, PhD, Chief Strategy Officer for the Immunization Action Coalition. “Adults may think, If I can get the flu shot easily, I might consider it.”