Low Flu Vaccine Numbers Going Into Holiday Season Worry State and Local Health Experts

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With flu activity expected to spike during the upcoming holiday season, health officials are encouraging parents to get themselves and their children vaccinated against the flu.

Childhood flu vaccine rates have dropped significantly this fall compared to the previous two flu seasons, according to the state Department of Health, which could be a cause for concern heading into the holiday season.

Recent data from the Washington state immunization information system shows flu vaccinations were down about 25% during the months of September and October for kids eligible to receive the flu vaccine, according to the Department of Health.

Northwest Pediatrics, which provides pediatric care at four clinics in the Lewis County area, has also seen lower flu vaccine numbers than this time last season. As of Nov. 17, the pediatric center had given 1,250 flu doses since flu season officially began in August, compared to 2,818 doses given within the same time frame last year.

“There’s probably a few reasons behind that,” said Dr. Maria Huang with Northwest Pediatrics. “Last season, we had the lowest flu numbers in recent history, so I think the low flu activity level probably put a lot of people in a place where they felt like ‘well, I probably don’t need to get that flu vaccine this year,’” she said.

Mental and emotional fatigue surrounding COVID-19 pandemic topics, such as vaccination, may have also put people off getting a flu shot this year. 

“Everyone is just tired and not wanting to think about it or address it any further,” she said.

There may also be some confusion between the COVID-19 and flu vaccines, Huang said, with some parents who have vaccinated their kids against COVID-19 thinking they don’t need to get a flu vaccine, or vice-versa.

“To clarify, these are two separate vaccines that protect against two different viruses and both are important,” said Huang.

Flu vaccines are recommended annually for anyone 6 months of age or older to protect against the influenza virus. The COVID-19 vaccination is currently available for anyone 5 years old or older.

“We are concerned that our youngest children remain vulnerable to both flu and COVID-19 illness,” said Washington state Secretary of Health Dr. Umair Shah in a written statement. “Although the COVID-19 vaccine is not yet available for kids 4 and under, the flu vaccine is. As parents, we want to do everything in our power to protect our children — and vaccination is an important tool that’s available to every family in Washington.”

Typically, flu activity peaks between December and February, although significant activity can last as late as May, according to the Department of Health.

Since last year’s flu activity was low, the Department of Health expects fewer people to have natural immunity this year due to a lack of exposure, especially in younger age groups.

Excluding last year’s abnormal flu season, 20,000 children are hospitalized annually from the flu, according to the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases.

In the 2019-2020 flu season, 199 children died from the flu, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control.

While the mortality rates for children are lower than the adult rates for both the seasonal flu and COVID-19, Huang encourages people not to lose perspective when it comes to childhood deaths from preventable diseases.

“I think sometimes people feel ‘well, the burden of disease isn’t very high among kids,’ but we have to remember kids shouldn’t be dying anyway. It's a tragedy when any child dies,” she said.

When asked if there was any general advice she would give to parents who are reluctant to vaccinate their children against the flu or COVID-19, Huang said, “I would just tell parents that the COVID and flu vaccines are the best defense against these viruses and I hope that they would head into the holiday season with confidence knowing they themselves and their family are protected against COVID and (the) flu.”

For weekly flu activity reports, educational materials, vaccine information and other flu prevention resources, visit www.KnockOutFlu.org.

The flu vaccine is available at pharmacies, clinics and health care provider offices across the state. To search for flu vaccines, visit Vaccines.gov.

People age 5 and older who are eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine can receive it on the same day they receive the flu vaccine, according to the Department of Health.

For more information on Northwest Pediatrics, visit nwpeds.com/

 

COVID-19 Vaccines for Children Ages 5-11

Since the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccination became available for children ages 5 through 11 starting Nov. 2, Northwest Pediatric Center has given out 37 children in that age group their first dose of the vaccine and is scheduled to give out hundreds more in the coming weeks.

Six vaccine clinics scheduled over the next few weeks, each accommodating 175 to 200 patients, have already been fully booked, Huang said.

“We’ve definitely seen a demand for the vaccine, which is exciting,” she said.

Northwest Pediatrics is expecting to see a trend similar to that of the adult COVID vaccine, with roughly a third of the eligible population eager to receive their first dose, another third taking a “wait and see” approach, and a final third deciding not to get the vaccine.

“That's what we’re anticipating,” said Huang. “I’m hoping it's different, but we’ve definitely seen parents who are COVID-vaccinated but who are hesitant to vaccinate their children.”

She encourages families to sit down one-on-one with their health care providers to talk through their reasons for not wanting to vaccinate their children against COVID-19.