Public health officials are pushing to vaccinate 65% of American adults against the flu this influenza season—an immunization coverage rate about 25 percentage points higher than during a typical year.

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The goal: to reduce an onslaught of patients with flu from descending on the health care system at the same time COVID-19 patients continue to seek care.

“This fall nothing can be more important than to try to increase the American public’s decision to embrace the flu vaccine with confidence. We’ve gone through the hesitancy. I want to move people to vaccinate with confidence,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Robert R. Redfield, MD, told viewers during a JAMA Network™ livestreamed video interview in which he discussed the COVID-19 pandemic and the CDC’s latest recommendations. “This is a critical year for us to try to take flu as much off the table as we can.”

To help meet the goal, the CDC ordered 9.3 million doses of the flu vaccine to be distributed to those who are uninsured. In a typical year, the CDC only orders and distributes a half-million doses.

Dr. Redfield said his biggest fear is for hospitals and the health care system to get strained from the two respiratory diseases sending people for care at once, because “when the health system gets overwhelmed, we find that with COVID-19, this is where the mortality seems to be the greatest.”

A recently published JAMA news article explores “What Happens When COVID-19 Collides with Flu Season.”

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You can stay up to speed on the AMA’s COVID-19 advocacy efforts and track the fast-moving pandemic with the AMA's COVID-19 resource center, which offers a library of the most up-to-date resources from JAMA Network™, the CDC, and the World Health Organization.

Targeting vaccination inequities

Dr. Redfield called on physicians to do their part in encouraging patients to get vaccinated and explaining to them the importance of it this year. In many years, slightly less than 40% of adults get the flu vaccine.

Those rates are even lower in some communities and the CDC is working to create plan to boost vaccination rates in African American, Latino and Native American communities. With studies showing that COVID-19 has hit communities of color harder than white communities, higher flu vaccination rates are needed to ease the disparities, he said.

A new Viewpoint essay published in JAMA, “Addressing Influenza Disparities During the COVID-19 Pandemic,” notes that just 37.1% of American adults received a flu vaccine during the 2017–2018 influenza season. An estimated 45.3% of American adults received a vaccine during the 2018–2019 season. But disparities are evident when you break down who received the inoculation by race. During the last flu season, the immunization rate was:

  • 48.7% among whites.
  • 44% among Asian Americans.
  • 39.4% among Blacks.
  • 37.1% among Hispanics.
  • 37.6% among American Indians and Alaskan Natives.

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“Prioritizing measures to help reduce the disproportionate effect of these illnesses on racial and ethnic minority populations must be part of the national strategy,” Dr. Redfield and his co-authors wrote. “Medical and public health professionals should work with partners trusted by racial and ethnic minority communities to establish trust and identify the best ways to meet health care needs in disproportionately affected populations. Ensuring full and equal access to influenza vaccination will ensure all people in the U.S. are maximally protected.”

More with Dr. Redfield

In the livestreamed interview led by Howard Bauchner, MD, editor-in-chief of JAMA and senior vice president of AMA scientific publications and multimedia applications, Dr. Redfield also discussed schools reopening, what it may take to achieve herd immunity, the task of distributing a COVID-19 vaccine when it becomes available and the importance of continuing to use mitigation strategies, including wearing a mask, washing hands and social distancing.

In a previous interview with JAMA, Dr. Redfield explained the evidence behind why everyone should be wearing masks.

Subscribe to the “Conversations with Dr. Bauchner” podcast. Each week, he interviews leading researchers and thinkers in health care about their recent JAMA articles. Go beyond an article recap, and delve into the background, context and implications of the study or editorial.

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