To Fight Covid-19, Get a Flu Shot
(Bloomberg Opinion) - With the increasing rate of coronavirus infections in many states, it is clear that Covid-19 is not leaving the U.S. as quickly. That is a problem now, and it will be even bigger this fall when returning to school and other indoor activities, as well as the start of the flu season, threatens to exacerbate the outbreaks.
A key strategy to minimize the potential second wave of Covid-19 and keep the economy going as far as possible until there is a Covid-19 vaccine is to increase the flu vaccine rate in the United States. This can help build the infrastructure and experience needed to vaccinate millions of people against the coronavirus once these vaccines are available. More importantly, the U.S. healthcare system can continue to focus on patients with Covid-19.
After all, seasonal flu is an infectious disease that doctors can minimize by vaccination. Note that in a typical season, hundreds of thousands of people with the flu are hospitalized and 12,000 to 61,000 die. It is always important to minimize this toll - but more than ever this fall. The nightmare scenario would be an exceptionally severe flu season that coincides with Covid-19.
The United States typically does not meet public health goals for the flu shot. In the 2018-19 season, only 45.3% of adults received a flu shot. This is above average, but is below the 70% target set by the Ministry of Health and Human Services for 2020. The CDC's Advisory Committee on Vaccination recommends universal flu vaccination to lower the risk for individuals and the population, and sees 70% of the general population as "ambitious" but achievable ". Children and older adults are vaccinated more often than young adults, but the US also fails to achieve its goals in these population groups. Rates are also lower for black and Hispanic Americans - populations particularly affected by Covid-19.
Fortunately for public health, all the hand washing, wearing masks, and social distancing people practice to prevent Covid-19 will also help reduce flu infections. Increasing the flu vaccination rate would significantly improve the picture.
As always, some people will fear that the flu vaccine poses risks. Or they'll say it doesn't work. So why bother? It is true that the vaccine is never perfectly protective - and its effectiveness varies from year to year - but it consistently reduces the severity of flu infections and therefore hospital stays. And side effects that go beyond fleeting headaches or pain at the injection site are extremely rare. A permanent misunderstanding is that the flu vaccine causes influenza. It is not so.
Efforts to communicate the value of vaccination, especially for healthcare workers, should be undertaken immediately. This year, the demand for vaccinations is stronger than ever, and Americans need to hear this from the CDC, state and local health agencies, and political leaders.
Vaccines are particularly important in high-risk environments such as classrooms. School districts should require children to be vaccinated against seasonal flu this year, just as they must be vaccinated against measles. Employers should also introduce vaccine mandates, especially for those who work in dense, high-contact environments. Yes, some people would object, but some controversy can be the price of protection.
People also need to be sure that they can be vaccinated in places where they are safe from Covid-19 infection. State and local governments should open special vaccination centers, which may coexist with Covid-19 test tents and transit centers, and advertise their existence through television, radio, internet, direct mail, and telephone. This would help to accommodate people who do not have a family doctor or who do not have easy access to vaccinations at work or on the college campus. This infrastructure could be reused for the rapid spread of Covid-19 vaccines, if available.
Who will pay for all of these shots? According to federal law, health insurers such as Medicare have to cover the costs of the annual flu shot. However, Medicaid vaccine coverage varies by state. And with unemployment rising during the pandemic, millions have lost employer-based health insurance. It is particularly important this year that the states and the federal government work together to make recordings for uninsured people free of charge or at least very inexpensive. (Given the urgency, it might even make sense to incentivize vaccinations in some neighborhoods.)
The government should also contract additional suppliers with vaccine manufacturers to meet the extraordinarily high demand.
There are many ways to prepare for an autumn surge in Covid-19 - from increased public health efforts to track outbreaks to stocking personal protective equipment for healthcare workers. No strategy should be overlooked, especially no proven approach to minimizing seasonal flu.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editors or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Max Nisen is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist who deals with biotechnology, pharmaceuticals and healthcare. Previously, he wrote about management and corporate strategy for Quartz and Business Insider.
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