CDC Director Rochelle Walensky getting her flu shot

Pictured: CDC Director Rochelle Walensky, M.D., MPH. 

Relaxed COVID-19 mitigation measures, travel and a lack of protective immunity against last season’s influenza virus could mean a potentially “vigorous respiratory virus season,” according to public health experts.

During the annual influenza press conference hosted by the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases in collaboration with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, public health experts and representatives form medical organizations urged the public and healthcare professionals to follow the CDC recommendation that everyone 6 months and older get vaccinated against the flu annually.

In the past, adults 65 and older were disproportionately affected by serious complications from influenza, with 80% of flu deaths occurring in this age group. NFID Medical Director Wiliam Schaffner, M.D., told McKnight’s Senior Living that each year, two-thirds of the older adult population gets vaccinated against influenza, but that means one-third don’t take the vaccine. 

“All you have to do is roll up your sleeve,” Schaffner said, adding that flu vaccines are free for those 65 and older. “You don’t have to reach for your wallet.”

An NFID survey on attitudes and practices around flu found that 71% of adults 65 and older plan to get a flu vaccine, compared with only 42% of adults aged 18 to 64. 

“Flu is unpredictable,” Schaffner said during the call, adding that vaccination against influenza can reduce the severity of illness, including hospitalizations and deaths. 

Due to the pandemic, Schaffner said, people have to be reminded that “flu is another nasty respiratory virus” that shows up during the winter. With virtually no flu season last year, he said, the reminder is even more important this year.

The near absence of flu last year was due to widespread implementation of COVID-19 prevention measures, including masking and physical distancing, said CDC Director Rochelle Walensky, M.D., MPH. 

And although flu activity remains low at this point, Walensky said, medical professionals are seeing a return of other viral infections, including respiratory syncytial virus, earlier than normal.

“The low level of flu activity last season could set us up for a severe season this year,” she said. “Population immunity is likely lower, putting us all at increased risk this year, especially among the most vulnerable. It’s doubly important to build up community immunity with flu vaccine as we head into fall and winter.”

Walensky added that it is safe to receive both a COVID-19 vaccine and a flu vaccine at the same time, and that vaccines have been proven safe and effective. And although she acknowledged that a combined influenza / COVID-19 vaccine is in the works, she said it will not be available for this season.

“Now is the time,” Walensky said, adding that this year’s flu vaccine campaign promotes different reasons to get vaccinated, including protecting individual health as well as family members at risk and the community at large.

Vaccine education

Part of the mission of health professions is to combat the misinformation about vaccines proliferating on the internet with correct information and education, Cedric “Jamie” Rutland, M.D., CEO of West Coast Lung and COVID-19 medical director for Private Health Management, told those on the call.

Rutland said he visits a local barbershop every week, dry erase marker in hand, to write on the mirror, to teach individuals about vaccination and immunology in a way they can understand. 

“It takes time to educate and let them come to their own conclusion,” Rutland said. “They’ll get to where we are as long as we provide the appropriate foundation for them to get there. That’s what it takes.”

When it comes to trusted sources about flu vaccination, healthcare professionals are the primary source of information for 56% of adults, according to the NFID survey. And 74% of U.S. adults participation in the poll said they trust healthcare professionals a great deal or a lot for flu vaccine information — more than any other source.

An overwhelming majority of U.S. adults responding to the survey (77%) said they would be willing to take antiviral medication to mitigate severe flu symptoms if prescribed by a healthcare professional, whereas 21% said they would not take antivirals. Younger adults (25%) indicated that they are more likely than older adults 65 and older (7%) to take antiviral medication if prescribed.

Pneumococcal disease

Among adults 65 and older, of those with underlying health conditions at higher risk for pneumococcal disease, gaps exist in awareness and understanding about the disease and vaccination, the experts said

According to the NFID survey results, 51% of older adults are not familiar with pneumococcal disease, and only one-third (32%) of those at higher risk for disease have been advised to receive a vaccine. 

Among those who have received a vaccine recommendation, the majority (84%) took the vaccine. Those older adults indicating they were unsure or don’t plan to get a pneumococcal vaccine cited a lack of recommendation from their doctor as the top reason (56%).