As the US continues to struggle with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, infectious disease and public health experts caution that the country will have to ramp up its rate of influenza vaccination in order to avoid a lethal concurrence of seasonal flu along with an expected second wave of the coronavirus infection this year.
In an editorial published in Science Magazine, scientists warned that strain on the healthcare system will be tremendous if influenza and COVID-19 epidemics overlap and peak at the same time. "We do not yet have a COVID-19 vaccine, but safe and moderately effective influenza vaccines are available. Their widespread use is more important now than ever, and we encourage health care providers, employers, and community leaders to promote vaccination," they wrote.
The Need For Immunization Against Flu
Dr Rochelle Walensky, chief of the infectious diseases division at Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, highlighted the danger of a confluence of two epidemics. "When you have a collision of these two things happening at the same time, I think we're going to be in real trouble," she told Medscape Medical News.
She noted that approximately 45 to 50 percent of people receive vaccination against the flu during any specific flu season. She emphasized that while a vaccine against COVID-19 is the need of the hour, the importance of immunization against influenza is of paramount importance this year. "We need to do a massive vaccine campaign because that's something we can do something about in terms of prevention," Walensky stressed.
Reducing Influenza Mortality Rate
In a paper published recently in JAMA, researchers emphasized that increased flu vaccination can decrease the number of deaths caused by the infection. "High vaccine coverage would reduce influenza-related mortality, while also helping to preserve the capacity and function of the health system during circulation of influenza viruses and severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2," they wrote.
Lawrence O. Gostin, co-author of the study, said a severe outbreak of flu "would be really ruinous for the healthcare system. If we continue to have those COVID spikes as a second wave, there would probably be 50 percent or 100 percent more hospitalizations on top of those from the flu."
Gostin and his fellow author, Daniel A Salmon, observe that while seasonal flu is not comparable to COVID-19 in its potency, it causes several deaths, specifically among the elderly. They noted in the study that in 2018-2019, approximately 35.5 million cases were reported in the US. Of these, nearly 500,000 required hospitalizations, and 34,200 succumbed to the flu. They also call attention to 79,400 US deaths to a specifically severe flu season the previous year.
Importance of Influenza Vaccination
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC ) recommendation, anyone who is of the age of six months and above must receive vaccination against seasonal flu. Gostin and Salmon noted in their paper that despite coverage of adult vaccination being only 45 percent in 2018-2019, it prevented nearly 4.4 million cases, 58,000 hospitalizations, and 3,500 deaths. They further pointed out that vaccination also reduces the duration of hospitalizations and admissions to intensive care units.
They attributed the low rate of vaccination to safety concerns and the public's perceived low effectiveness of the shots. "While effectiveness is low compared with other vaccines, influenza immunization is very safe and cannot cause influenza," they wrote, addressing the issue.
Kristen Nordlund, a spokesperson for CDC, said that getting vaccinated against seasonal flu is of utmost importance this year. She weighed that it will enable the preservation of crucial medical services for COVID-19 patients and facilitate healthcare providers.
She added: "CDC is developing and will roll out new communications materials to increase awareness about the importance of flu vaccination this season, especially among people who are at higher risk for flu and COVID-19." A news conference for the purpose is scheduled for 1 October, which coincides with the period of vaccinations set to begin for the 2020-2021 flu season.