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Worried about possibility of a tough flu season, officials urge vaccinations

Margaret LaRaviere got an influenza vaccine during an event hosted by the Chicago Department of Public Health at the Southwest Senior Center on Sept. 9 Chicago.Scott Olson/Getty

Worried that a difficult flu season might be ahead this fall and winter, federal officials are renewing their call for people to get both COVID-19 and flu shots in the coming weeks.

“We do expect flu viruses to spread this fall and winter and we know that flu vaccination remains the best way to protect yourself and your loved ones against flu and its potentially serious complications,” Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said at a news conference Tuesday.

Vaccination, she said, “reduces the burden of flu illness, hospitalization and death, and ... getting vaccinated could also help protect people around you, including those who are more vulnerable to severe illness, like babies and young children, older adults, and people with certain chronic health conditions.”

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Dr. Ashish Jha, the White House COVID-19 response coordinator, tweeted Monday that “we’re likely to see a significant flu season,” and warned that the flu and COVID-19 “can pose a real threat this fall & winter.”

“Go get your updated COVID vaccine and annual flu shot — before Halloween,” he urged. “Make sure others in your life do the same.”

The National Foundation for Infectious Diseases, which hosted the Washington news conference where Walensky made a virtual appearance, said a survey it commissioned had found that 49 percent of US adults plan to get a flu shot during the 2022-2023 flu season, even though 69 percent agree flu shots are the best way to prevent flu-related deaths and hospitalizations.

The survey, conducted by NORC at the University of Chicago, also found widespread reluctance to getting a flu shot and a COVID-19 shot at the same time, which federal officials have suggested. Only 32 percent were extremely or very confident about the safety of getting the two shots in tandem.

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“These survey data are concerning. The updated COVID-19 boosters are safe and convenient to get at the same time as a flu vaccine,” Patricia A. Stinchfield, the foundation president, said in a statement.

In a change from pre-pandemic flu seasons, 58 percent of adults said they would wear a mask at least sometimes during flu season, the foundation said.

“Flu has the potential to hit us hard this year,” said Dr. William Schaffner, the foundation’s medical director. “On a positive note, we have more preventive behaviors in our toolbox than we did before the COVID-19 pandemic. We are more accustomed to wearing masks and staying home when sick.”

The CDC estimates that between 12,000 and 52,000 people a year died in the United States of flu and related complications between 2010 and 2020. Flu activity often begins to emerge in October and most of the time peaks between December and February, the agency website says. But it notes that the timing has been less predictable since the COVID-19 pandemic.

Walensky, an infectious disease expert from Massachusetts General Hospital said that preliminary estimates suggest that about 5,000 people died of flu and related complications during the last flu season, which was “relatively mild.” She said flu activity last season began to increase in November and remained elevated until mid-June, making it the latest season on record.

She urged people to get shots. “I want to strongly encourage everyone to take advantage of this preventive tool and get vaccinated, ideally by the end of October. I hope that you will join me in making an annual flu vaccine a very healthy habit for your self and your entire family,” Walensky said.

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She also recommended that people take “everyday preventive actions” to stop the spread of flu and other respiratory illnesses such as staying home if you’re sick, avoiding people who are sick, washing your hands often and covering coughs and sneezes. If you do become sick, she said, “take flu antiviral drugs if a health care provider prescribes them. Taking antivirals can help shorten your illness, make it less severe, and it may prevent more serious outcomes.”

CDC recommends that everyone 6 months and older get a flu vaccine every flu season. The recommendation has been made since the 2010-2011 flu season. Officials say people 65 and older should ask for one of three specially recommended extra-strength shots.

Experts are worried that flu may hit hard this year after Australia, which is just emerging from its winter, had its worst flu season in five years. Reasons to worry, they say, include the dropping of COVID-19 mitigation measures such as mask requirements, which can prevent respiratory diseases from spreading; and a weakening of people’s immune response to the flu because of the lull in the flu during the COVID-19 pandemic.


Martin Finucane can be reached at martin.finucane@globe.com.