About 44% of U.S. adults don’t plan on getting vaccinated against flu or are unsure if they will do so during this flu season, health experts said on Thursday, as they warned about possibly higher flu activity amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
Data released by the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases also found that 23% of those at higher risk for complications from the flu reported they did not plan on getting vaccinated.
“While flu activity was historically low during the 2020-2021 flu season, we could see flu activity surge this season, with relaxed COVID-19 mitigation strategies, increased travel, and the reopening of schools and businesses,” said NFID Medical Director Dr. William Schaffner. “The best way to protect yourself against flu is to get an annual flu vaccine. Even in cases when flu vaccination does not completely prevent infection, it can reduce the duration and severity of illness and can help prevent serious complications, including hospitalization and death.”
The survey also found that 37% of adults are very or extremely worried about COVID-19 either for themselves or a family member, but only 19% are similarly concerned about the flu. Hispanic adults at 52% and Black adults at 45% are more likely to be worried about catching both flu and COVID-19 at the same time compared to their White counterparts at 27%.
As of Thursday, the coronavirus has infected more than 44 million people in the U.S. and killed more than 707,000, a tally from Johns Hopkins University shows.
For the 2020-2021 flu season, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported “unusually low” activity, despite high levels of testing. Only 1,675 out of 818,939 respiratory specimens, or 0.2%, tested by U.S. labs, came back positive for an influenza virus compared to about 26% to 30% during the last three flu seasons before the pandemic, the CDC found. The last flu season had the lowest recorded flu-related hospitalizations and only one report of a child dying from the flu.
But health experts are warning about potentially higher flu activity this year due to the lifting of some restrictions on public activities and the lack of protective immunity from the previous season.
“When there’s active flu one year to another, then we have more people, not just those who are vaccinated, but we have people who are actually sick who have built up some protective immunity from the season prior,” said Dr. Rochelle Walensky, CDC director. “That immunity actually helps us year-over-year and especially from those who might not have gotten vaccinated. If they had gotten the flu last year, they may have some residual immunity against getting the flu again this year.”
She added, “So we don’t have a lot of protective immunity from last season and because of that, we are worried as a community that we will have less immunity overall. And that’s really why we’re anticipating, especially as our protective prevention strategies start to decrease in some areas, that we will see more flu.”
An estimated 52% of the U.S. population six months and older got a flu vaccine last season, close to the coverage seen during the 2019-2020 season, according to the CDC.
Flu vaccination among adults increased to 50%, with higher coverage among older adults than younger adults. By contrast, flu vaccination rates dropped to 59% among children six months to 17 years last season, down from 64% the previous season, the annual NFID survey found. About 80% of children who died from the flu in earlier flu seasons were not fully vaccinated.
About 55% of pregnant women were vaccinated against flu during the 2020-2021 season, similar to the prior season.
Dr. Laura Riley, chair of the department of obstetrics and gynecology at Weill Cornell Medicine, said that the flu vaccine has proven safe for pregnant women, noting there is more than enough data to show the shots don’t cause miscarriages, birth defects and other health concerns soon-to-be mothers might have.
Adults 18 to 49 years old with at least one chronic health condition had one of the lowest flu vaccination rates at 42% last season, the survey found. The survey included 1,000 responses from adults 18 years and older from all 50 states and the District of Columbia.
Pneumococcal disease can be a serious complication of the flu, health experts say, but the survey revealed that 51% of those in at-risk populations did not know about the disease, while only about a third had been advised to get vaccinated against it.
Experts recommend that everyone six months and older get the flu shot each year. The shot also can be given simultaneously with COVID-19 vaccines in both adults and children 12 years and older.
Shared symptoms for both flu and COVID-19 include fever, cough, shortness of breath, fatigue, sore throat, runny nose, body aches, headache, and vomiting and diarrhea.
Those at higher risk of flu-related complications include pregnant women, children younger than five, adults age 65 and older and those with certain underlying medical conditions such as diabetes and heart disease.
Health officials say getting vaccinated, wearing a mask, social distancing, washing hands frequently and staying home if sick can help protect against both the flu and COVID-19.