Every influenza (flu) season is unpredictable. The typical refrain is “if you’ve seen one flu season, you’ve seen one flu season” no matter how many years you have worked in the space. The upcoming 2020-2021 flu season is a good case in point as the country faces a dual threat: co-circulation of flu and the novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) that causes COVID-19.  

While we do not yet have an approved vaccine for COVID-19, we do have safe and effective vaccines to help prevent and mitigate the severity of flu, particularly for anyone with a chronic health condition, such as heart disease, lung disease and diabetes.

Marla Dalton, CAE, executive director and chief executive officer of the nonprofit organization, National Foundation for Infectious Diseases (NFID), has spearheaded countless educational campaigns that encourage annual flu vaccination for everyone age six months and older. I sat down with her (virtually, of course) to get a sense of why flu vaccination is more important than ever during the 2020-2021 season.

Vigliarolo: NFID has placed a heavy emphasis on the importance of flu vaccines for many years. How has COVID-19 created challenges this flu season?

Dalton: The COVID-19 pandemic poses many logistical and public health challenges this year when it comes to protecting vulnerable populations against flu. More importantly, when looking at the groups at highest risk for both flu and COVID-19, it became clear that adults with chronic health conditions needed a specific focus with targeted flu vaccination messaging.

And while we are all still learning about the impacts of COVID-19, medical experts are well aware that co-infection with flu is a real concern. To further address the concern, NFID convened a multidisciplinary virtual roundtable of leading experts to discuss the potential risks co-infection could have on adults with heart disease, lung disease and diabetes, as well as the impact on minority and underserved populations.

The discussions from the roundtable resulted in a Call to Action that includes recommendations for administering flu vaccines this season, especially among adults with chronic health conditions, in conjunction with COVID-19 mitigation efforts.

Why the emphasis on adults with chronic health conditions?

In the US, an estimated six in ten adults have one or more chronic health condition that put them at increased risk for flu and COVID-19. For this population, related complications include the potential exacerbation of underlying health conditions as a result of flu-related inflammation that may persist long after the acute infection. These adults also face an increased risk of long-term complications, including heart attacks and strokes, after experiencing acute influenza or COVID-19 infection. While we currently don’t have an approved COVID-19 vaccine in the US, we know that annual flu vaccination can help protect these patients from hospitalization, progressive disability and even death.

Don’t adults with chronic health conditions already realize this increased risk and the importance of flu vaccination?

Unfortunately, the risks are not understood well enough. A recent NFID survey found that nearly one in four U.S. adults at high risk for flu-related complications said they did not intend to get vaccinated this flu season. However, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) data shows that annual flu vaccination can mitigate serious flu-related complications, preventing an estimated 7.5 million flu illnesses, 3.7 million flu-associated medical visits, 105,000 flu hospitalizations and 6,300 flu deaths in 2019–2020 alone.

What is NFID doing to raise awareness of the benefits of flu vaccines, particularly among adults with chronic health conditions?

Issuing the Call to Action was our first step to increase flu vaccination rates during the COVID-19 pandemic. Not only does the report encourage healthcare professionals to educate patients with chronic health conditions about their risks, it also offers suggested tactics for discussions with both patients and office staff, vaccine implementation strategies specific to the COVID-19 pandemic and techniques for addressing vaccine misinformation.

The Call to Action has already received the support of more than 35 leading medical organizations, including the American College of Cardiology, American College of Emergency Physicians, American Diabetes Association and American Lung Association, who are now urging their stakeholders to prioritize flu vaccination for these high-risk populations.

NFID will continue to educate both healthcare professionals and patients about the importance of annual flu vaccination. After all, flu vaccination is our best tool in ensuring that we are protecting ourselves and our loved ones from the dangers of flu.

NFID is a Padilla client. Our team is pictured with the #TravelingFluBug to help spread awareness, not disease!

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