Every flu season is unpredictable. And while flu activity in the 2020–2021 season appears to be low so far, there may be a rise in influenza cases in the coming months at the same time the US is seeing an unprecedented number of COVID-19 cases. With emergency rooms and hospitals strained to capacity due to COVID-19, a rise in influenza-related hospitalizations would be disastrous.
It therefore becomes increasingly important to ensure the public does not defer their routine immunizations and preventive care visits during the pandemic.
The typical refrain is “if you’ve seen one flu season, you’ve seen one flu season,” no matter how many years you have worked in the space. While two new COVID-19 vaccines will soon begin to be made available to specific priority groups such as healthcare workers and first-responders in the US (and a vaccine program is already being rolled out in the UK), it is a public health imperative to interrupt influenza transmission in communities with seasonal flu vaccination. This is particularly important for high-risk groups like young children, adults 50 years of age and older (particularly 65+), pregnant women and anyone with a chronic health condition, such as heart disease, lung disease or diabetes. Certain groups at high risk for flu, like the elderly and those with a chronic health condition – are also at increased risk for COVID-19.
Experts agree that the pandemic poses many logistical and public health challenges this year when it comes to protecting vulnerable groups against flu. And while the medical and scientific communities are still uncovering the impacts of COVID-19, experts are well aware that co-infection with flu is a real concern.
Encouraging and communicating the need to seek flu vaccination is an annual public health call to action, marked by the first signs of autumn, which persists through the winter and spring months. This year, more urgently than ever before, the immunization community and its partners must break through the elevated noise and anxieties (and logistical challenges) caused by COVID-19 to not only urge routine vaccinations to continue, but to issue a strong call for everyone eligible to get this year’s flu immunization. (For more on the importance of understanding and considering people’s concerns, please see: Understanding people’s fears and concerns relating to COVID-19 vaccines.)
According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), annual flu vaccinations can mitigate serious flu-related complications, preventing an estimated 7.5 million flu illnesses, 3.7 million flu-associated medical visits, 105,000 flu hospitalizations and 6,300 flu deaths (these numbers reflect preventive successes during the 2019–2020 season alone).
While we are all accustomed to the surround-sound from local health departments, pharmacies, doctor’s offices and national advocacy and medical groups that lead the charge each year to boost flu vaccine awareness, this year’s communications campaigns must keep in mind the unique and evolving circumstances of COVID-19. There are some key steps to take, including:
- Educate about the importance of preventing flu infections to help reduce the burdens on doctor’s offices, urgent care clinics and hospitals – to save resources for COVID-19 patients
- Remind people that doctors’ offices, clinics and pharmacies have adapted to social distancing and other pandemic-related measures – getting a flu vaccination is safe and the actions taken are the same as picking up groceries and other daily activities that most individuals have resumed as the pandemic continues
- Clarify that while the flu vaccine cannot help protect against COVID-19, it is the best way to help keep you healthy and avoid flu-like illness – which is especially important for healthcare workers, older adults, those with a chronic health condition and young children
- Encourage people to consider this another way to ‘do their part’ during the pandemic – similar to social distancing, wearing masks and other measures, getting the flu vaccine this year more than ever will help reduce overall flu-related doctor and hospital visits, will help families stay healthy and will help save important resources for the testing and treatment of patients with COVID-19 patients this winter
The healthcare community continues to persevere during the pandemic, meeting unforeseen challenges and forging scientific discovery (for more on the unprecedented scale and effort required to sequester and defeat this virus, please see: Is the world ready for a COVID-19 vaccine?). Continuing to support their efforts while also encouraging the uptake of proven tools – such as a yearly flu vaccine – to help protect ourselves and loved ones has taken on new meaning and new nuances this year.
Are you being challenged with trying to deliver resonant and actionable health messages during the pandemic for non-COVID-19 health concerns? Please contact us to explore how we may be able to help.