Oregonians eagerly await a COVID-19 vaccine to put an end to social distancing and bring us back to normal.
But public health officials are already beseeching Oregonians to get a different vaccine. It's one everyone has heard of before but less than half of adults in Oregon get: the yearly flu vaccine.
Flu season typically starts by November. But the idea of a bad flu season mixed with a pandemic is the stuff of public health officials' nightmares. So they're preparing now.
"The whole world runs around looking for a COVID vaccine," Dr. Arthur L. Caplan, professor of bioethics at New York University's Grossman School of Medicine, told the National Press Foundation's Vaccine Boot Camp on July 30. "If you want to get a nightmare scenario for late in the year, you could have COVID come back, the flu start up, and measles break out. That's my super-duper trifecta of misery."
There's a selfish reason to get vaccinated this fall. Getting COVID-19 on top of the flu could prove deadly for any unlucky patient.
But another reason to get a flu shot is more systemic: It reduces the strain on hospital beds. One reason that Oregonians spent months staying home was to protect against emergency rooms being overwhelmed. Increasing the flu vaccination rate also helps reduce need for critical care.
Nationwide, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that increasing vaccination rates by 5 percentage points could prevent 4,000 to 11,000 hospitalizations, depending on how severe flu is in a given year.
WW spoke with Mimi Luther, provider services team manager with the Oregon Immunization Program, about how the state is going to get flu vaccines out this year—and why the preparation for the flu vaccine will help the state prepare for the COVID-19 vaccine.
WW: Flu vaccine isn't entirely effective for the person getting it. The COVID-19 vaccine may be no more effective than the flu vaccine. Why should I get the flu vaccine?
Mimi Luther: This year, that's more important than it's ever, ever been.
We know that for a lot of people, flu doesn't kill them. But we also know that for a lot of people, flu does kill. If you add flu to COVID, I don't know what that clinical outcome looks like.
I have a 26-year-old son who says, 'You know, Mom, I don't need to get the flu vaccine. I never get sick.' So I'm intimately familiar with those conversations. Last week, we talked about what if you got flu and you got COVID, or what if you got flu and you gave it to me? That made him stop and think. So he would be willing to get a flu vaccine to protect me. That's a great tool to use.
In 2018-19, 61% of children and 45% of adults in Oregon got the flu vaccine. What's your goal this year?
My goal would be 80%. We're very far away from that. You know, if Damian Lillard came out and got a flu shot, that would take care of a lot of it.
What are the challenges going to be this year in getting a flu vaccine to people during a pandemic?
They're sort of inseparable at this point, in part because we think the COVID vaccine will be available before any of us really thought it would. So that's the added pressure.
We need to get the word out. People need to start thinking about it now, talking to their friends and their families about what are we going to do and when are we going to get our flu vaccine and how are we going to do this? What [will it] look like if we have both flu and COVID at a high rate? I don't want to imagine it.
Can you give examples of how you're building the infrastructure to get a vaccine out that will apply for a COVID-19 vaccine too?
One of the things we're trying to support right now is people giving vaccines in a whole new way. So, curbside, drive-thru clinics. And then one of my favorite examples is Clackamas County Fire has what they call a community paramedic. Her name is AmyJo Cook. And AmyJo approached us two years ago and said, "I provide a lot of care to homeless folks and other folks in need, and I want to be able to offer vaccines to them."
That's really unusual and uncommon, and we're going to rely on the AmyJos of Oregon to come forward and help us provide that kind of access in more than just Clackamas County.
Do you think people should be required to get a vaccine?
I think at this point it's not a valuable conversation to have. We don't have kids going back to school. That's where flu gets spread really easily, and we don't have the community consensus around immunization and science that we need to have to support making a flu vaccine mandatory. And I don't think the time is right to do it right now.
Oregonians really don't like to be told what to do. They like to be asked for help, and we're asking for their help.
Do you think there will be more people willing to get their flu vaccine this year?
I'm counting on it. Yeah, I'm absolutely counting on it.
Have you asked Damian Lillard to get the flu shot?
I have not. Can you do that?
Rachel Monahan reported this story with the support of the Dennis A. Hunt Fund for Health Journalism, a program of the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism's 2020 National Fellowship.