By LITJEN “L.J” TAN
Immunization Action Coalition
We celebrate the anniversary of the first COVID-19 vaccines this winter – and progress in controlling the virus. With vaccines readily available – and recommended for everyone age 5 years and older – more people are traveling and returning to school and work.
While we welcome the return of more human connection, one unwelcome consequence is an increase in influenza activity. With COVID-19 prevention measures in place, the 2020–21 influenza season was marked by historically low influenza virus circulation. However, influenza activity is on the rebound for 2021–22. With the return of influenza comes both mild and severe illness in all ages, including infants, pregnant people, older adults, and people with chronic health conditions.
Influenza vaccines are readily available. However, vaccination rates for influenza and other routinely recommended vaccines have dropped substantially compared to last year and the year before. Lower vaccination rates for influenza with widespread circulation of influenza viruses could increase the magnitude of the wave of sick people requiring virus testing, outpatient visits, lost school time and hospitalizations, further taxing our health care workers and causing unnecessary illness and suffering.
For many reasons, including the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, we are seeing a decline in influenza vaccination rates to date in all age groups and pregnant people. Comparing the week ending Nov. 27, 2021, with the same time last season, vaccination rates are 7 percentage points lower for all children this season, 14 percentage points lower for pregnant persons, and 17 percentage points lower in the Medicare fee-for-service the over 65 population. And fewer people have been vaccinated at their pharmacy or doctor’s offices compared to this time last year. Not surprisingly, the numbers are even lower for children and adults in racial and ethnic minority communities.
We must act quickly to turn this around.
While influenza disease burden is low right now, we’re seeing outbreaks return, mostly in southern states and on college campuses. Now is the time to vaccinate. While influenza most often peaks in February, influenza can spread very quickly once transmission starts in an institution or community setting.
The burden of influenza is not to be taken lightly. While it varies widely each year, the CDC estimates that in the last decade, each influenza season has resulted in anywhere from 9 to 41 million illnesses, 140,000 to 710,000 hospitalizations, and 12,000 to 52,000 deaths. The average annual total economic burden due to influenza is estimated to be $11.2 billion.
Health care providers’ reminders and recommendations are key to improving uptake of vaccines, including influenza. Recent surveys from the National Foundation for Infectious Disease show that less than half of adults with a chronic condition report having received an influenza vaccine as of early November. Additionally, less than a third of health care providers say they recommend annual influenza vaccines to all of their patients with chronic health conditions.
With many people focused on getting COVID-19 vaccine boosters for themselves or COVID-19 vaccine primary series for their children, influenza vaccination must be on the to-do list as well.
Influenza and COVID-19 vaccines may be given at the same time, a practice that CDC has advised is both safe and effective. Co-administering vaccines is key to helping patients get caught up on needed vaccines efficiently while reducing unnecessary visits.
Time is of the essence. Vaccinate now, before the wave of influenza season begins its seasonal surge.
Litjen “L.J” Tan, PhD, is the Chief Strategy Officer for the Immunization Action Coalition and Co-Chair of the National Adult and Influenza Immunization Summit.