While the world watches and waits for a COVID-19 vaccine to bring the coronavirus pandemic under control, there’s another inoculation poised to be just as important this fall.
That would be the flu shot, as America’s annual influenza season usually begins in October before peaking between December and February. And the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is very worried about what is going to happen as the pandemic that’s killed at least 200,000 Americans since March bleeds into flu season, which is responsible for between 12,000 and 61,000 deaths a year.
CDC director Robert Redfield warned in a WebMD interview on Wednesday that America is bracing for “the worst fall, from a public health perspective, we’ve ever had.”
This is not because cooler weather somehow makes the coronavirus worse, or that the summer’s heat kills the virus, which has been a common misconception about the coronavirus causing the disease COVID-19. Rather, fall and winter become influenza’s time to shine.
“We’re going to have COVID in the fall, and we’re going to have flu in the fall. And either one of those by themselves can stress certain hospital systems,” Redfield said, noting that many hospitals have already been overwhelmed by the number of coronavirus patients. There have also been reports of hospitals in New York, Texas and Arizona calling in refrigerated trucks to serve as temporary morgues to handle the number of dead bodies during the pandemic. And the flu has seen between 140,000 and 810,000 people hospitalized each year since 2010.
Both outbreaks at the same time could be devastating this fall. But one of them — influenza — actually has a vaccine and treatment that can keep it under control. The problem is, less than half of the country (47%) got a flu shot last year. The CDC normally recommends that 60% to 70% of the country get the influenza inoculation to keep the virus under control. This year, Redfield said that he’s pushing for 65% compliance.
And while the CDC normally purchases about 500,000 doses of the vaccine each year for uninsured adults, this year Redfield said that it’s ordered an extra 10 million doses, for more than 190 million doses total, to encourage everyone to get vaccinated against the flu.
Don’t let reports that vaccines have been less effective in some flu seasons put you off. (For example, the 2017–18 vaccine’s efficacy rate was just about 36%, which means it cut flu-related doctor visits by that amount.) The vaccine can still lower your risk of complications or dying from the flu, even if you do get sick.
“If there’s one thing we all can do — besides the importance of wearing a mask, social distancing hand washing and being smart about gatherings — that basically ultimately prepares ourselves for the fall, (it) is to get the influenza vaccine,” said Dr. Redfield. “So by getting that flu vaccine, you may be able to then negate the necessity to have to take up a hospital bed. And then that hospital bed can be more available for those that potentially get hospitalized for COVID.”
Yet health officials are concerned that fears of catching COVID-19 in public could keep people from seeking out the flu vaccine or other essential medical care as the pandemic continues. In fact, less than half of Americans said they would get the COVID-19 vaccine if and when one becomes available.
Two-thirds of parents in an Orlando Health report released this week said that they are “still nervous” about taking their kids to the pediatrician because of the pandemic. The World Health Organization and UNICEF have also warned of “an alarming decline” in the number of children getting lifesaving vaccinations around the world as the coronavirus has spread.
And about half of families (48%) in a recent Kaiser Family Foundation survey said that they have a family member who has delayed getting medical care during the pandemic, and one in 10 said that their family member’s condition got worse as a result. What’s more, as millions of Americans have lost their jobs, they’ve then also lost their health insurance to get this kind of preventive care.
If you’re uninsured, the shots generally run between $40 and $60 at drugstores like CVS CVS , Walmart WMT and Target TGT , or those with Costco COST or Sam’s Club memberships have been able to get jabbed for just $20 or $30. You can also find health centers near you, or look up your state’s free and discounted vaccine offerings, at Vaccines.gov.
What’s more, autumn also ushers in respiratory illnesses such as the rhinovirus (one cause of the “common cold”) and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) — the latter which is the most common cause of severe respiratory illness in young children, and a leading cause of death from respiratory illness in adults over 65. The good news is, safety measures to avoid COVID-19 — such as frequent hand-washing, social distancing and wearing face masks — can also help minimize the spread of these other viral respiratory infections. These measures could potentially lead to a less severe flu season, as well.
“When you ask me what Thanksgiving’s going to be like, I think it’s just dependent on how the American people choose to respond,” Dr. Redfield said. If people follow the CDC’s social distancing and hygiene recommendations and get their flu shots, “it will bring this [COVID-19] outbreak down,” he said.