Julie Bowers has gotten the flu shot every year for as long as she can remember.
For her, it’s a no-brainer.
“We have this vaccine that’s very effective, and there’s no reason not to get it,” Bowers said.
The flu vaccine, she said, is not only an easy way to protect yourself, but also to prevent others from getting sick.
But the 21-year-old University of Florida health science senior was shocked when she learned Florida ranked as the state with the lowest rate of flu vaccinations between 2019 and 2020.
“I think it’s terrible,” Bowers said.
The ranking was based on a survey conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that gathers data on flu vaccination rates across the country. AdvisorSmith, a company that aims to aid and inform small business owners, examined the CDC’s findings over the past three years to ascertain the states with the highest and lowest rates of vaccinations.
There is a glimmer of good news in the data, though: Florida’s rate of flu vaccination has gone up from 35.6% to 44.5% over the past three years, said AdvisorSmith Chief Executive Adrian Mak. While rates have risen both in Florida and nationwide, in comparison to Rhode Island, the state with the highest rate of vaccinations, Florida still lags behind.
Low vaccination rates in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic have added a newfound urgency to flu season.
Experts predict a “twindemic,” or a simultaneous spread of both respiratory illnesses, is looming as winter begins in earnest this month. The winter months present another wave of COVID-19 case and death surges, along with increased susceptibility to sickness.
For those reasons, the CDC and other health authorities are recommending that all people six months and older get a flu vaccine.
A twindemic, Mak said, can add more pressure to an already strained healthcare system.
“Medical professionals have their hands full trying to deal with the coronavirus pandemic,” Mak said. “As we approach the winter, we basically are going into the peak season for the flu. That really is going to have a negative effect on the medical system.”
Above: Hear Adrian Mak discuss how flu vaccinations could reduce the likelihood of a flu and COVID-19 “twindemic.”
An overwhelmed healthcare system, Mak said, has already spurred government shutdowns, businesses closures and restrictions on people’s movement. Time constraints, lack of access and negative attitudes toward vaccinations, Mak said, play into low rates in certain areas of the U.S.
“The most common reason is that people are busy and they don’t get around to it,” Mak said. “They have to work, they have to take care of their kids and they just don’t have time. Access can be an issue depending on where people live and then there’s just attitudes about vaccines that are different in each place.”
But as the search for a COVID-19 vaccine progresses, with companies like Pfizer and Moderna developing a vaccine with 95% efficacy, Mak said he hopes recent flu shot rates aren’t indicative of the COVID-19 vaccination rate.
“People are eager to resume normal life,” Mak said. “The coronavirus vaccine is really an important part of getting back there, so hopefully people will be willing to take up the vaccine.”
Kenny Wise, a local Gainesville pharmacist at Wise’s Pharmacy, said he hopes people will get both the flu shot and the COVID-19 vaccine when one becomes available.
“With COVID-19 going on right now, we need to get as many people vaccinated for the flu as possible, so they’re not having complications and having to go to the hospital,” Wise said. “There’s already a lot of that overwhelming people.”
With the similarities in symptoms of both illnesses, he said, vaccinations can help reduce unnecessary waste of resources.
“The initial symptoms are very similar,” Wise said. “If you get your flu shot now, you can kind of eliminate, ‘Well, I probably don’t have the flu because I had my flu shot,’ so it can result in faster treatment.”
This is the first year that Wise’s Pharmacy has carried the flu shot, which Wise administers. He said they have used social media to encourage the public to get the vaccine. They also have a sign at the front of the store asking people to get it.
Despite their efforts, only one or two people a week have so far come in for their flu shot, he said.
Wise, who worked at a much larger pharmacy company in the past, said he understands young people around the community are not as likely to get the annual flu shot. Still, he is surprised by the general lack of interest and some people’s refusal to get it.
“The most common reason is they say they had it before and it gave them a flu, which is not true,” Wise said. “It must just means they were exposed to the flu a couple of weeks before they got the shot. It’s dead virus or pieces of the virus.”
In a sad irony, he said the nationwide lack of concern may also stem from a false sense of security brought on by COVID-19: As people stay inside and wear masks, they see themselves as less susceptible to the flu this year.
Even so, young people have shown to be particularly dismissive of COVID-19. Now, they may find themselves at greater risk of contracting both illnesses.
Bowers, the UF student adamant about flu vaccinations, has seen this attitude first hand and knows of the uncertainty of dueling infections.
“We don’t know what could happen to someone’s immunity to having both viruses at the same time or sequentially,” Bowers said. “We don’t know if someone gets the flu, will that hurt their immunity and then they’re more likely to get COVID? Or if they have both at the same time, will that increase the reaction that they have?”
For Bowers, she said the answer is simple: Just get the flu shot.