In the face of what some have called a “twindemic” of COVID and the flu virus, 1 in 3 parents in the United States say they will pass on getting flu shots for their children this year, according to a new national poll conducted at the University of Michigan.
Some say lingering concerns over contracting COVID-19 at the doctor’s office are keeping them away, according to a survey of 1,992 parents as part of the C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital National Poll on Children’s Health.
For the most part, families that habitually get flu shots each year report they’ll do the same this year, said Mott poll co-director Sarah Clark.
“But if we say this year is going to be different, then we have to reach the people who aren't in the habit of getting that [vaccine] every year… That number has got to come way up,” she said.
Early trends suggest Michiganders have taken notice.
As of Friday, flu vaccines were up more than 30 percent over the same period last year — from 386,984 between July 1 and Sept. 25 last year to 506,234 this year, said Bob Swanson, director of the state’s immunization division.
Health officials warn of a particularly deadly flu season this year as the country faces COVID at the same time. Some worry not only about individuals being infected with both viruses, but that the combination may overwhelm health systems as happened in March and April when COVID-19 first hit Michigan.
And children are far from immune.
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Last year’s flu season killed 188 children in the nation. That’s a relatively small number but doesn’t include hospitalizations, missed school days, and miserable hours with fever, aches, cough and congestion or even more serious complications — pneumonia and brain dysfunction such as encephalopathy, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Typically, about 3.2 million Michiganders get flu shots in a state of nearly 10 million people. The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services wants to get an additional 1 million vaccinated against the flu this year and it has launched an unprecedented campaign. Still, reaching those numbers may not be easy.
Rite Aid doesn’t release the precise numbers of vaccines it ordered this year, but Chris Altman, the chain’s clinical manager of its pharmacies, said the chain’s vaccine order shot up 40 percent over last year’s orders.
“While we have a COVID pandemic ongoing, it's pushing hospitals and providers to the maximum. We can't really accommodate having a flu outbreak at the same time,” he said.
That’s especially worrisome in rural areas with limited hospital beds, said Kerry Ott, spokeswoman for the Luce-Mackinac-Alger-Schoolcraft Health Department in Michigan’s rural Upper Peninsula, which this year is trying to double its vaccine rate.
“This is not the year to take your chance with the flu,” she said.
COVID-19 hit Michigan last year at the tail end of the flu season, so it’s “hard to say” what a double infection — of flu and COVID — would look like, said Dr. Anthony Ognjan, infectious disease specialist at McLaren Macomb.
But getting flu shots into the arms of Michiganders will take more work this year.
In addition to hesitancy about being in doctor’s offices, senior centers and many workplaces — the site of countless pop-up vaccination clinics across the state — remain shuttered or only partly staffed. Health fairs have gone online, and telemedicine has replaced many in-person doctor’s visits.
That forces some residents who might otherwise get a flu shot during their everyday routines — at work, on errands, or before a senior center lunch — to think ahead about a vaccine.
Among the findings of the Mott poll, which surveyed parents who had at least one child 2-18 years old:
- About 2 in 3 parents surveyed said they plan to have their children vaccinated this year — more specifically, 49 percent said “very likely” and 19 percent “likely.”
- About 1 in 3 (34 percent) say the flu vaccine is more important this year than last year; 58 percent say it's about the same, 8 percent say it's less important.
- Among the 32 percent of parents who will skip flu vaccines for their children, they most commonly cite concerns about side effects or the belief that it isn’t necessary or effective.
- Among these same parents who said they won't seek vaccinations for their children, 1 in 7 say they are keeping children away from health care sites because of COVID concerns.
- Fewer than half (44 percent) of all parents taking the survey said their child’s doctor “strongly recommends” a flu vaccine. Another 23 percent say the doctor recommends it.
It’s that last finding that disheartens Swanson at the state health department.
“There's been a lot of data out there in past studies for years saying the biggest driver in either making the decision for their child or themselves receiving a vaccine is a strong physician recommendation,” he said.
“Two-thirds of physician practices aren’t even making a recommendation at all,” he said.
He and the Mott authors say it’s critical that primary care physicians stress the importance of flu vaccines both for adults and for children.
And Swanson said he also sees the good news in the report.
In addition to the uptick in vaccinations so far this year, nearly everyone surveyed (96 percent) whose children were vaccinated last year said they will do the same this year. And among those whose children weren’t vaccinated last year, 28 percent said they will get their children vaccinated this year, he noted.
Farah Jalloul, director of professional development at the Michigan Pharmacists Association and a part-time pharmacist in Lansing, said she’s already seeing a willingness among more people to get vaccinated.
“I’ve had people this year saying ‘This is the first year I’ve gotten my flu shot’,” she said.
Editor's Note: An earlier version of this article mistated the company Chris Altman worked for. It is Rite Aid.