While experts warn that the coming flu season may be worse than usual, new data shows less than half of U.S. adults plan on receiving the vaccine against the disease.
The study, published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases last week, questioned 1,005 respondents on their attitudes towards both influenza and pneumococcal disease and related vaccination practices.
While 69% of respondents agreed that annual flu vaccination is the most effective way to prevent adverse outcomes from the disease, just 49% of respondents said they planned on getting vaccinated against influenza for the coming 2022 - 2023 flu season.
Those numbers split further when broken down by age demographic; nearly two-thirds of adults aged 65 years and older, a cohort at higher risk of developing severe complications after contracting the flu, said they were likely to get a flu vaccine this year compared to just 45% of respondents aged 18 - 64.
The CDC estimates around 45% of adults of all ages received their flu vaccine last season, with 35% of individuals 18 - 49 years reporting they were vaccinated. In total, around 51% of Americans aged 6 months and older were vaccinated against the flu last season.
But there was “limited flu circulation” last season, per the CDC, a trend that may not continue this year.
“With a potentially challenging flu season ahead, I urge everyone to protect themselves and their families from flu and its potentially serious complications,” CDC director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said during a briefing last week. “Schedule your flu vaccine today.”
Experts are on high flu alert this season because Australia just experienced its worst flu season in five years – and what happens in Southern Hemisphere winters often foreshadows what Northern countries can expect.
“Based on what we have seen in parts of the Southern Hemisphere, flu has the potential to hit us hard this year,” NFID medical director Dr. William Schaffner noted last week. “On a positive note, we have more preventive behaviors in our toolbox than we did before the COVID-19 pandemic. We are more accustomed to wearing masks and staying home when sick.”
The CDC advises individuals to get a flu vaccine by the end of October, but that they can be given any time during flu season. It takes about two weeks for protection to set in. This year, people 65 or older are also urged to get a special kind of flu vaccine for extra protection.
There are three choices. Fluzone High-Dose and Flublok each contain higher doses of the main anti-flu ingredient. The other option is Fluad Adjuvanted, which has a regular dosage but contains a special ingredient that helps boost people’s immune response.
Seniors can ask what kind their doctor carries. But most flu vaccinations are given in pharmacies and some drugstore websites, such as CVS, automatically direct people to locations offering senior doses if their birth date shows they qualify.
“Flu vaccination is important for everyone,” Dr. Tamika Auguste, chair of Women’s and Infants’ Services at MedStar Washington Hospital Center, said in part. “But it is especially important for those at higher risk from potentially serious complications of flu, including pregnant women, children under 5 years of age, adults age 65 years and older, and those with certain chronic health conditions, including diabetes, lung disease, and heart disease.”
Dr. Ashish Jha, the White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator, stressed the importance for Americans aged 12 years and older to get both their flu shot and a bivalent COVID-19 vaccine this fall, saying in part: "If Americans did that, we could save hundreds of lives each day this winter."
The two-shot combo will be especially important given the likelihood of a severe flu season and an increase in COVID infections in the past two winter seasons.
"The challenge with holiday seasons every year is it's also a time where contagious respiratory viruses like influenza, RSV [respiratory syncytial virus], and again this year COVID spread much more quickly," Dr. Jha said Tuesday. "And we have seen an increase in COVID infections, hospitalizations and deaths each of the last two winters and we are carefully monitoring the rise of several sub variants that are evolving rapidly and emerging around the world, including ones that evade some of our treatments."
"Don't wait," Dr. Jha said of getting the shots, later adding: "I think people should get vaccinated before Halloween. Why Halloween, because it takes a couple of weeks for your immune system to kind of generate the benefit from that vaccine. And that means you will be ready by Thanksgiving."
The recently-approved combination, or “bivalent”, COVID shots contain half the original vaccine that’s been used since December 2020 and half protection against today’s dominant omicron versions, BA.4 and BA.5. It was the first update to COVID-19 vaccines ever cleared by the Food and Drug Administration.
Updated shots made by Pfizer and its partner BioNTech are authorized for anyone 12 and older, and rival Moderna’s version is for adults. They’re to be used as a booster for anyone who’s already had their primary vaccination series – using shots from any U.S.-cleared company – and regardless of how many boosters they’ve already gotten.
Dr. Jha on Tuesday recommended individuals who were recently infected with COVID-19 wait three months after contracting the illness to get a booster vaccine.