A record-setting number of flu vaccine doses have been distributed this season, as the U.S. struggles to contain new infections of COVID-19, a respiratory illness with similar symptoms.
So far, 183 million doses of flu vaccine have been distributed, breaking the previous record of nearly 175 million doses last season, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Manufacturers have estimated that as many as 198 million flu vaccine doses will be available in the U.S. this season.
Despite the higher distribution, the CDC says it has not seen an uptake in flu shots as of right now.
Health data show that the U.S. currently is experiencing very little flu activity. Only 379 out of 226,433 flu tests performed at clinical and public health labs nationwide have come back positive. Hospitalization rates will be published weekly starting later this season.
CDC data does highlight that 10.7% of deaths have been attributed to pneumonia, influenza or COVID-19, above the epidemic threshold of 6.2%. However, most of these deaths are due to the coronavirus.
As of Sunday, the coronavirus has infected more than 13.2 million people and killed more than 266,000 in the U.S., according to a Johns Hopkins University tally.
Meanwhile, the CDC estimates that influenza has caused between 9 million and 45 million illnesses, between 140,000 and 810,000 hospitalizations and between 12,000 and 61,000 deaths each year since 2010.
Although some health officials warn of a “twindemic” during the colder months, a CDC report from earlier this year suggested actions to stop the coronavirus pandemic could contribute to a less active flu season.
“Actions to stop the spread of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, such as school closure, wearing a mask, or staying six feet apart from others, could reduce the impact of flu this fall and winter in the United States if widely practiced. However, it’s impossible to say with certainty what will happen during the upcoming flu season, making it important to prepare for both flu and COVID-19,” said CDC spokeswoman Kristen Nordlund.
L.J. Tan, chief strategy officer for the Immunization Action Coalition, said he associates how the flu season will turn out with COVID-19, noting how the pandemic progresses is a sign of how well Americans listen to public health advice.
“In the United States, as long as we see surges in COVID-19 disease that suggests to me that we’re not very compliant. Because if we were compliant, we would stop infection rates,” Mr. Tan said. “The fact our infection rates are continuing to surge would suggest to me that we are not doing that. So the question is, how compliant do we become before the flu begins to start coming in and starts peaking?
“If we don’t see reductions in COVID-19 rates, I use that as a corollary to how well we are sheltering in place. If we don’t see that, it would suggest to me that we are not sheltering in place, we are not being compliant with the masking, the social distancing, in which case, I would be surprised if we don’t see a flu season that’s typical,” he said.
Mr. Tan noted that Australia essentially eliminated the flu this season, with a 99% reduction in flu cases, and was able to stop COVID-19 in its tracks.
The Australian Government Department of Health reported 21,235 cases of lab-confirmed flu this season including 36 deaths, earlier this month. The country has recorded only 27,892 COVID-19 cases and 907 deaths as of Sunday.
Although the CDC said it has not seen an uptick in flu vaccinations, a national survey released by leading health officials in October found that more U.S. adults plan to get a flu shot this season compared to last season. The survey found that 59% of U.S. adults planned on getting a flu vaccine this season compared to 48% who got vaccinated during the 2019-2020 season.
Since the flu season coincides with a surge in new cases of COVID-19, which shares many similar traits to influenza, some health experts worry it could strain and lead to possible complications to the medical care system.
“It will be hard for physicians and other health care providers to tell the difference between the diseases based on symptoms alone and testing may be necessary to confirm a diagnosis and even testing has its limitations and challenges,” Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease expert at Vanderbilt University, told reporters last month. “Additionally, many of the same people who are most vulnerable to serious complications of COVID-19, including older adults and those with chronic health conditions, are also at greater risk for complications from flu.”
The CDC says it doesn’t have flu vaccine effectiveness estimates yet since it is too early in the season.
Since flu activity is “very minimal” and doesn’t start to peak December into February, Mr. Tan said it is difficult to pinpoint which strains are circulating, and therefore, hard to determine how effective this year’s flu shot is.
Flu vaccine effectiveness rates have averaged around 40% over the last several years.
It is recommended that everyone 6 months and older get a flu shot. Even if the vaccine isn’t very effective, health experts say it can still provide some protection.
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