Why your doctor is pushing the flu vaccine so hard this year

After a two-year hiatus, the seasonal flu and other viruses are making a comeback

Every year, doctors and public health officials urge people to get a flu vaccine. This year, the message is even more pressing with the flu making a roaring comeback in Georgia after virtually disappearing the past two seasons during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Despite gains over the past decade with flu vaccination rates, fewer than half of American adults get the jab, according to a new report released Tuesday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The report also examined vaccination rates and outcomes among various racial and ethnic groups and found that the same racial differences noted during the worst of the coronavirus pandemic are also seen for influenza.

“We’ve had two mild seasons and that means we might be ripe for a severe flu season this year,” said Carla Black, an epidemiologist in the CDC’s Immunization Services Division in an interview. And while it’s still early in the flu season, Georgia is already a national hotspot with high flu activity, according to the CDC’s influenza map.

The report released Tuesday also highlights sharp disparities among different racial and ethnic groups. Black and Hispanic people are more likely to be hospitalized with the flu but less likely to get vaccinated against the flu.

File photo of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention main campus in Atlanta. BEN GRAY / BGRAY@AJC.COM

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The overall influenza vaccination rates among adults was 49.4% during the 2021-22 flu season when the season ended in June — up significantly from the 2010-2011 season when the vaccination rate was 40.5%.

But the study found that since 2010, while the vaccination rates rose in nearly all racial and ethnic groups, Black and Hispanic people continue to lag far behind. For Black Americans, the vaccination rate during the 2021-22 season was 42%; for Hispanic people, it was about 38%. Asian and white people had the highest vaccination rates, with about 54% for both racial groups.

Lower vaccination rates have contributed to more serious flu cases among people of color, but other factors also fueling the divide include less access to care, distrust of medical institutions, and misinformation over the safety and efficacy of flu vaccines, according to the CDC.

People of color also have a higher burden of chronic health conditions, including diabetes, heart disease and lung disease, which have been associated with more severe COVID illness. These same health conditions can also make people more vulnerable to getting seriously sick from the flu.

CDC epidemiologists have seized on lessons learned during the COVID pandemic to drive flu vaccines this fall. In the first months after the COVID vaccine rollout, Black and Hispanic Americans were far less likely to be vaccinated. In addition to difficulty obtaining the shots, hesitancy was also driven by a combination of mistrust of medical institutions and circulating myths about vaccine safety and effectiveness. But the racial gap was narrowed.

Dr. Tara Jatlaoui, an epidemiologist with CDC, said turning to trusted community messengers such as religious or civic leaders and making sure the vaccines are available in non-traditional settings such as barbershops farmer’s markets, community centers, and churches can improve distribution.

And while the study found people who have a primary doctor and get routine checkups are more likely to get a flu vaccine, it’s far from a given. To help increase the odds, the CDC urges health care providers not only make the recommendation but be armed with materials promoting the benefits and reasons for vaccination, dispelling myths, and having them available in Spanish and other languages.

The flu vaccine can’t protect against other respiratory viruses circulating now or against COVID. Other respiratory viruses circulating now include respiratory syncytial virus or RSV, a highly contagious seasonal flu-like illness that is more likely to be serious in infants and older adults. Adding to the virus spread are rhinoviruses, the most common cause of colds.

Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta said last week they were seeing an “unprecedented” number of sick children filling emergency departments and urgent care centers, including children who require hospitalization and intensive care. On Tuesday, a hospital spokesperson said they are continuing to see unusually high volumes of patients, and while she declined to provide specific numbers, said the surge is two to three times their normal volume of patients.

Views of Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta as seen on Thursday, October 13,  (Natrice Miller/natrice.miller@ajc.com)

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

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Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Millions of Americans get sick with the flu in an average year and thousands die, according to the CDC. Influenza can circulate year-round in the U.S. but is most active during the winter. Earlier in the pandemic, as people stayed home and wore masks, flu activity nearly disappeared. Fewer flu cases meant fewer people developed immunity from exposure to the viruses, leaving them now particularly vulnerable.

While vaccine effectiveness can vary each year, studies show that flu vaccination can reduce the risk of getting the flu by about half. But studies show if people do get sick with the flu, getting a flu vaccine can significantly reduce the risk of getting seriously sick, according to the CDC.

“During my time as an ER doc and throughout my work at CDC, I’ve seen that the reasons behind inequities and vaccination coverage for people from some racial or ethnic minority groups are systemic, and the result of many factors. I’ve also seen the impact that vaccination can have to reduce the impact illnesses like the flu can have on our society,” said Dr. Debra Houry, CDC acting principal deputy director.

The overall rate of hospitalizations for the flu among adults by race and ethnicity, per 100,000 people:

78.2 are Black

54.6 are American Indian/Alaska Native

50.3 are Hispanic

43 are White

34.5 are Asian or Pacific Islander people

Source: CDC Vital Signs report: Influenza Hospitalizations and Vaccination Coverage by Race and Ethnicity