EAST PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Some health officials are warning the United States could see its worst flu season in years, after milder bouts during the first years of the COVID-19 pandemic.
This prediction comes from looking at Australia, where flu season is now coming to an end. According to recently published health data, the continent had its worst flu season in five years.
The Australian Department of Health’s annual Flu Surveillance Report shows in 2021, there were no deaths and only three hospitalizations due to the flu. Department data shows since April of this year, there have been 1,708 hospital admissions and 288 influenza-associated deaths reported.
In preparation, U.S. retail pharmacies have already begun administering annual flu shots, as well as the updated bivalent COVID-19 boosters. Retail pharmacies are urging patients to schedule those through their respective websites or mobile apps.
Katie Pouliot, a pharmacy manager at the CVS on Reservoir Ave in Cranston, said it takes two weeks to build immunity post-shot.
“It’s best to get the flu vaccine early in fall, especially by the end of October,” Pouliot added.
That’s in line with guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC), though the agency also notes that even if an individual doesn’t get vaccinated until November or later, “vaccination is still recommended because flu most commonly peaks in February and significant activity can continue into May.”
Additionally, the CDC says patients can get a COVID-19 vaccine and a flu vaccine concurrently, if they’re eligible and the timing coincides.
“If you’re so inclined, it’s perfectly safe and similarly effective to get your flu shot at the same time,” CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said during a White House COVID-19 Response team briefing last week.
In that same briefing, Dr. Anthony Fauci, chief medical advisor to the president, said it’s likely the country is moving toward a path where there will be annual COVID-19 shots to match the circulating strains, like there are for the flu.
“However, some particularly vulnerable groups may continue to need more frequent vaccination against COVID-19,” Fauci added.
While Pfizer’s updated bivalent COVID-19 booster is only available to those 12 and older and Moderna’s is for those 18 and older, flu shots are recommended for anyone six months and older. CVS and Walgreens say its pharmacies are able to vaccinate patients as young as 3 years old in some states.
According to R.I. Department of Health spokesperson Joseph Wendelken, like the rest of the country, flu vaccination rates were down in Rhode Island last year, at only a 42% uptake.
“This may have been related to lingering hesitancy to get preventive care because of COVID-19,” Wendelken explained. “We were still seeing lower rates for things like cancer screenings, for example.”
Wendelken told 12 News the Health Department is hoping to boost numbers significantly this year and get up to 60%.
The Health Department will also start running public flu clinics in October, according to Wendelken.
“Vaccination will be very important this flu season, given the ebbs and flows we have seen with COVID-19,” he said. “Year in and year out, getting vaccinated against the flu is your best protection against serious illness.”