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Health officials are doubling down on calls for people to get flu shots this fall amid the coronavirus pandemic to reduce the burden on healthcare workers already battling COVID-19.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends an annual flu vaccine to ward off seasonal influenza viruses, which tend to peak during fall and winter.
U.S. Rep. Michael Burgess, a Republican from North Texas, encouraged his Twitter followers to get vaccinated for the flu, sharing a statistic about how many people have gotten flu shots each year.
"Did you know: in the last 10 years less than half of adults in the US received a flu shot?" he wrote. "This flu season I hope you will consider getting your flu vaccination, despite all of the social distancing measures that are in place around the country."
Burgess' his claim about the number of adults who have gotten flu shots is on the money. He did not return a request for comment seeking additional information about his remark.
CDC data shows higher rates for certain groups
Estimates from the CDC show that, since 2010, less than half of all adults in the U.S. got a flu shot each year during flu season.
The percentage of vaccinated adults each year has fluctuated, reaching a high of 43.6% in 2014 and a low of 37.1% in 2017, the most recent year with available data.
"Depending on the specific age groups, some are vaccinated more than others," said Dr. Pedro Piedra, a professor of molecular virology, microbiology and pediatrics at Baylor College of Medicine. "Older adults generally have high vaccination coverage compared to the general public. Likewise for young children under 5 years of age, you’ll see vaccination coverage that is generally much better than that of the general healthy adult."
Vaccination coverage among adults over 65 has ranged from a high of 66.7% in 2014 to a low of 59.6% in 2017, staying above the 50% mark for the past 10 years.
The age group with the lowest percentage receiving flu shots is those between 18 and 49. Vaccination coverage for this group ranged from a high of 33.6% in 2016 to a low of 26.9% in 2017.
For children, vaccination rates are higher — nearly 70% of children under 4 were vaccinated for the flu each of the past 10 years. For all children 17 or younger, an average of 56.6% received a flu shot for each of the past 10 years.
Why is the rate so low?
Part of the reason more older adults and younger children get flu shots is because they tend to be in doctors’ offices at higher frequencies than younger adults, which puts them in front of physicians who encourage them to get vaccinated.
"Adults aren’t like kids; it’s not like you go to the doctor every three months or every six months," said Dr. Jewel Mullen, associate dean for health equity at the University of Texas’ Dell Medical School. "At best, maybe some go once a year. So those opportunities are missed."
Mullen said the reasons that vaccine numbers are so low are dependent on several factors including a combination of misinformation about influenza infections, the vaccine and how frequently shots are necessary.
Cost can also be a factor, Mullen said. Flu shots are generally free with most medical insurance, but some plans require copays and the cost of a flu shot without insurance can range from $40 to $70, or more for high-dose vaccines.
Ideally, Piedra said roughly 80% of all people would get flu shots each year.
"Not only would that offer greater direct protection, but you’d have greater indirect protection," he said. "Direct protection is if you receive a vaccine, you receive a direct benefit of the vaccine. Indirect means those who have not been vaccinated, but they receive an indirect benefit when they are surrounded by those who have been vaccinated. This reduces the risk that the virus will be released and transmitted through that community."
For Mullen, there isn’t a perfect number, but the goal is clear: "as many as possible."
"The other reality right now is that we’re talking about concerns for what this upcoming flu season is going to be in the context of a pandemic that we still do not have under control," she said. "We already know that many of the populations and people at risk for severe disease from COVID 19 are the same ones at risk for severe disease from influenza, so we’re layering risk and vulnerability on top of one another, which gets me back to saying as many, as many as possible."
Burgess said "in the last 10 years less than half of adults in the US received a flu shot."
Estimates on flu vaccination coverage show that, since 2010, less than half of adults each year get a flu shot. That rate is higher among older adults and children.
We rate this claim True.
Twitter, Michael Burgess, Sept. 19, 2020
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Estimates of Influenza Vaccination Coverage among Adults—United States, Oct. 25, 2019
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Interim Estimates of 2019–20 Seasonal Influenza Vaccine Effectiveness, Feb. 20, 2020
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, The Flu Season, accessed Sept. 21, 2020
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Preventive Steps, accessed Sept. 21, 2020
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Who Needs a Flu Vaccine and When, accessed Sept. 21, 2020
Phone interview with Dr. Pedro Piedra, professor of molecular virology, microbiology and pediatrics at Baylor College of Medicine, Sept. 21, 2020
Phone interview with Dr. Jewel Mullen, associate dean for health equity at the University of Texas’ Dell Medical School, Sept. 21, 2020
Texas Tribune, The Q&A: Pedro Piedra, Nov. 9, 2015
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