Flu-shot manufacturers plan to ship record numbers of vaccine doses to the U.S. this year as public health officials prepare to urge as many Americans as possible to protect themselves amid the Covid-19 pandemic.
"Though we don't yet have a vaccine for Covid, we do have a tool to prevent influenza," said Dr. Nancy Messonnier, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, in a recent podcast interview.
The four makers of flu vaccines have said they plan to ship almost 200 million doses to the U.S. this year, up about 19% from last season. AstraZeneca, which makes the FluMist nasal spray vaccine, said it increased its plans for this season by 25% due to an expected need for more doses this year.
"The both public and private demand for this upcoming season has been tremendous," said Elaine O'Hara, head of North America commercial operations for Sanofi Pasteur, the vaccines unit of French drugmaker Sanofi.
Fewer than half of American adults, and about 60% of kids, typically get the flu shot each year, CDC data show. Public health experts are aiming for higher numbers this year to try to reduce the burden on hospitals already strained by Covid-19.
"The last thing we want on top of that now is to have beds that could go to Covid patients be used for influenza patients, ventilators that may be needed for Covid patients now have to be also diverted to influenza," said Dr. Jose Romero, a pediatric infection diseases specialist and interim director of the Arkansas Department of Health.
Every year, the flu sickens between 9 million and 45 million Americans, causes at least 140,000 hospitalizations and leads to 12,000 to 61,000 deaths, according to the CDC.
And while the flu shot isn't perfect — it ranges from 20 to 60% effectiveness each season, depending on how well scientists are able to predict which strains will be circulating — the agency says the vaccine prevents millions of illnesses and thousands of hospitalizations and deaths from flu each year.
And, experts note, the vaccine can also lead to milder disease.
"So while we may get a mild case of influenza, there'll be less of the severe cases of influenza that result in office visits that can overwhelm a doctor's office or in hospitalizations," said Dr. Leonard Friedland, vice president and director of scientific affairs and public health for GlaxoSmithKline vaccines.
As the pandemic has kept many from making routine doctors visits, Friedland, who's also a practicing physician, said GSK is starting an ad campaign to remind people to make sure they're up to date on their vaccines — for all vaccine-preventable diseases, not just flu.
Meanwhile, public health officials are bracing for the uncertainty of the coming flu season on top of Covid-19.
"That's another reason for getting the flu vaccine this year," Romero said. "You don't want to get Covid on top of flu or flu on top of Covid. Because we don't know what the clinical manifestations will be. We can only surmise or guess that they could be additive and it could be detrimental."
Public health experts also say it's possible we could see a less severe flu season this year because of Covid-19-related social distancing, use of masks and increased hand hygiene — but only if we take those actions to protect ourselves and one another.
Correction: An earlier verison of this story misstated AstraZeneca's shipments last year, in text and in a table. The company said it increased its plans for this season by 25%. As a result, total vaccine shipments will be up about 19% from last season.