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Pandemic Demonstrates The Importance Of This Year's Flu Shot

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

So what will happen this winter when the coronavirus collides with the flu? The pandemic has already put immense strain on the health system, and too many flu cases could quickly overwhelm hospitals. This year, getting the flu vaccine to as many Americans as possible will be crucial. But even that is going to be a challenge, as NPR's Will Stone explains.

WILL STONE, BYLINE: Every year when flu season rolls around, HealthPoint Clinic outside Seattle holds a series of open houses for the flu shot. Dr. Lillian Wu says it's a convenient way to get many of her patients vaccinated.

LILLIAN WU: We could do, you know, 20 a day. We could do 50 a day.

STONE: But with the pandemic, that's not happening this year.

WU: Nowadays, that's going to be much more difficult because of the need to physically distance.

STONE: Wu is president of the Washington Academy of Family Physicians. She and many primary care doctors say the coronavirus has disrupted almost everything. Waiting rooms are strangely quiet. Most visits are done remotely by phone or computer.

WU: There's a lot of people who are hesitant to come in for very, you know, understandable reasons - because they're afraid of, you know, risking infection.

STONE: Wu is worried patients won't come into the clinic for the flu shot. Already, fewer families are showing up for routine childhood immunizations. So they're brainstorming possible solutions. One idea is to do a drive-through like they do for COVID testing.

WU: The thing is there's, right now, only one of those two viruses which are preventable, and that's the flu.

STONE: The health care system is bracing for what the nation's top doctors warn could be a harrowing fall and winter. Dr. Edward Belongia studies vaccines at the Marshfield Clinic Research Institute in Wisconsin.

EDWARD BELONGIA: I think it keeps a lot of people up at night in public health.

STONE: In a normal year, the flu kills anywhere from 20,000 to 60,000 people in the U.S., and hundreds of thousands more end up in the hospital. Many fear hospitals can't handle that plus an onslaught of very sick COVID patients all at the same time. Some doctors hope it might not be so bad if Americans continue to wear masks, wash their hands and socially distance. That could cut down on the spread of the coronavirus and the flu, but Belongia says people still need to get the vaccine.

BELONGIA: It's not just reducing your risk of getting the flu and having to go to the doctor. It's reducing your risk of being hospitalized and developing severe illness, as well.

STONE: The problem is less than half of adults even got the flu shot last year. This year, the federal government hopes to bump up that number. It's purchased millions of extra doses, and Dr. Michael Greenberg with drugmaker Sanofi Pasteur says they've ramped up production.

MICHAEL GREENBERG: There's been a bigger than ever demand for flu vaccination. This year will bring about 15% more doses than we did last year.

STONE: But even with more doses, Americans still need to know where to go get it. Daniel Salmon directs the Institute for Vaccine Safety at Johns Hopkins University.

DANIEL SALMON: One thing we know with flu vaccine is that ease of access really matters.

STONE: That could be really hard this year. Fewer people are going to their doctors. They're working remotely and can't just drop by their workplace flu clinic. Plus, many schools are not holding in-person classes, so parents can't count on kids getting their shots while there.

SALMON: All those opportunities to get the vaccine have been reduced, and that does raise concerns to me that we'll see less people getting vaccinated.

STONE: Salmon says public health messaging could help overcome those obstacles. Everyone from the CDC to health care companies are mounting big awareness campaigns. Pharmacies are setting up more locations. Dr. Georges Benjamin is executive director of the American Public Health Association.

GEORGES BENJAMIN: It requires strong, unified national leadership on the messaging. It has to be coordinated real well, and we can do it.

STONE: Benjamin says he gets that Americans are feeling pandemic fatigue. But he hopes they hear the message on the flu because at least that's a vaccine we already have.

Will Stone, NPR News, Seattle.

(SOUNDBITE OF L'ENDECIS' "STAYING THERE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.