As it does every fall, the CDC is urging Americans to get their annual flu shot. Last year, flu was rare because Americans stayed home and wore masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19. This lack of flu from 2020 to 2021 (flu season generally occurs between October and May) could mean a potentially severe season this coming winter, CDC director Rochelle Walensky, M.D., M.P.H, said.
“When there is an active flu season one year to another, then we have…some protective immunity from the season prior,” Walensky said at the Oct. 7 flu season media briefing co-hosted by the CDC and the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases (NFID) and several health providers. “We do not have a lot of protective immunity from last season and because of that, we are worried” about the most vulnerable populations including children, pregnant people and those 65 and older.
Last year, public health officials warned of a “twindemic” of both COVID-19 and the flu, but the worst of their fears did not materialize. Public health experts believe behavior restrictions implemented to prevent the spread of COVID-19 (i.e., social distancing, mask-wearing and online learning in schools) also prevented the spread of the flu. This year, with many of the COVID-19 restrictions lifted, the public health community is bracing for a surge.
Public health officials are concerned that possibly because of vaccine fatigue, 44% of Americans were either unsure or didn’t plan to get vaccinated against the flu, and 25% of them are at high risk from flu complications, according to this NFID survey.
“Frankly, we are alarmed by the large number of people who said they won’t get vaccinated,” said William Schaffner, M.D., NFID’s medical director and professor of preventive medicine and infectious diseases at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine.
Tips for reporting on the flu
Just as we saw with the COVID-19 vaccine, there is a lot of misinformation and confusion about the flu shot. Schaffner urges reporters to focus on children’s vulnerability to the flu and data showing that at least 199 kids died from the flu in the 2019-2020 season. Eighty percent of those who died were not vaccinated, he said. Further he noted that children under the age of 8 who have never had a flu shot before need two doses, spaced one month apart.
Another high-risk group for flu complications is pregnant people. Laura Riley, M.D., an obstetrician and gynecologist at New York-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center said the most common question she receives is whether the flu vaccine is safe in pregnancy and how physicians know that it is.
“We have decades of data,” Riley said. “We have more than enough data to suggest that the flu vaccine does not increase risk for miscarriage, doesn’t cause preterm birth and doesn’t cause birth defects — all the things that runs through people’s minds when they are having a baby.”
She also emphasized the flu vaccine in pregnant people provides protection against the flu for babies in the first six months of life. Babies are not eligible for the flu vaccine until they reach 6 months of age.
For a list of the most common questions and misconceptions about the flu and how to debunk them, refer to this checklist by epidemiologist Katelyn Jetelina Ph.D., M.P.H.