Record number of flu shots expected in New York, U.S. amid COVID-19 pandemic. What to know
A record number of flu shots are being manufactured as part of a dire push to immunize Americans against influenza during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The historic effort seeks to limit cases of one respiratory disease, influenza, to allow the health care system to focus on another one, COVID-19.
It involves using about 198 million doses of flu vaccine this season, up from the 175 million doses last season, federal data show.
In New York, the two illnesses hit hard simultaneously earlier this year in a deadly scenario, experts said, citing how flu was spreading at a record pace before COVID-19 cases peaked this spring. It ultimately complicated the pandemic response and nearly overran hospitals.
In other words, widespread flu immunization is crucial to saving thousands of lives and keeping society open this fall and winter.
“People who have the responsibility for making these decisions could very well on the basis of COVID and flu outbreaks ask for more business closures and school at home,” said Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious diseases professor at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine.
“We would like to do everything we can to prevent that from happening again,” he added.
How flu and COVID hit New York
In early February, health officials in New York reported 17,233 confirmed flu cases in one week, the second-highest weekly total on record.
At the time, not a single case of COVID-19 had been confirmed due to limited testing capabilities, and authorities urged New Yorkers to remain vigilant for the flu.
"I encourage all New Yorkers older than six months to get their flu shot — it's not too late,” Gov. Andrew Cuomo said in a statement on Feb. 13.
Within a month, confirmed COVID-19 cases had begun to rise as testing improved, and New York shut down schools on March 16, when it had 950 cases and nine deaths.
Experts have since questioned if the school closures came too late, citing how New York has gone on to have the most COVID-19 deaths in the U.S., at least 33,000 (including probable deaths).
In some ways, the federal government’s early failures to roll out COVID-19 testing hindered the crisis response, leaving health officials in the dark while patients with respiratory illnesses flooded into hospitals.
State health officials in New York, however, have since taken steps to better track flu and COVID-19 cases heading into the fall.
For example, hospital patients and nursing home residents with symptoms of flu and COVID-19, which both include fever and cough, must be tested for both diseases under emergency regulations enacted Aug. 31.
Suspected respiratory disease deaths will also require testing for both flu and COVID-19, unless the person had recent tests prior to death.
"While the human toll this virus has taken on New Yorkers is immeasurable, these regulations will ensure we have the most accurate death data possible as we continue to manage COVID-19 while preparing for flu season,” Department of Health commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker said in a statement.
He added the testing data “will strengthen our contact tracing efforts and slow the spread of this virus."
How flu vaccines can help avoid COVID lockdowns
New York’s path from pandemic epicenter to among the lowest infection rates in the country – hovering below 1% over the past month – underscored why limiting flu cases is important amid the race for a COVID-19 vaccine, experts said.
Many of New York’s phased reopening plans, for instance, hinge upon robust COVID-19 testing strategies that depend upon supply chains under increased demands nationally.
“There will be a much greater interest in testing, and we may run into shortages in both kinds of tests if we have prominent COVID and a severe flu season,” Schaffner said.
New York is currently testing about 90,000 people per day on average for COVID-19, but flu testing requires access to many of the same laboratories and materials involved in the process.
Yet flu immunizations and public health measures taken to reduce COVID-19, such as social distancing and mask wearing, may help New York avoid a shortage because it has proven effective at limiting flu from spreading.
That scenario has already played out in the southern hemisphere, which goes through its flu season earlier than the U.S.
“Down in Australia, they had a pretty mild flu season,” Schaffner said, “they attribute it to two things: They used more influenza vaccine than they ever had, and the Australians were pretty good, not perfect, with the social distancing and mask wearing.”
When should people get the flu vaccine?
There is no change in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC, recommendation on timing of vaccination this flu season.
“Getting vaccinated in July or August is too early, especially for older people, because of the likelihood of reduced protection against flu infection later in the flu season,” CDC says.
September and October are good times to get vaccinated. However, as long as flu viruses are circulating, vaccination should continue, even in January or later, CDC added.
Schaffner suggested people should try to get the flu vaccine before the end of October, citing how the complexities of production and distribution could be overshadowed as a COVID-19 vaccine gets closer to market.
“All of the personal attention would be directed to COVID vaccine and people could forget about influenza vaccine, which makes it all the more important as we get into the end of September and into October,” he said.
Is it safe to get flu shot amid COVID?
Some settings that usually provide flu vaccine, like workplaces, may not offer vaccination this upcoming season, because of the challenges with maintaining social distancing, CDC says.
But many pharmacies, such as CVS and Walgreens, have announced added safety precautions tied to COVID-19. Drive-thru flu clinics have also started in some communities across the country.
Patients will be given a COVID-19 screening questionnaire and have their temperature taken prior to any immunization at CVS and Walgreens. They must also wear a face covering or mask (one will be provided, if needed).
The pharmacist or provider administering the immunization will have personal protection equipment, including a plastic face shield, and the immunization area will be sanitized between patients, the companies said.
To find pharmacies and clinics offering flu vaccine near you, visit the HealthMap Vaccine Finder website at vaccinefinder.org.
For information on local flu clinics, see a list of county health department phone numbers and websites is available on the state Health Department website at health.ny.gov.
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