Get a flu shot. It’s important. With more than 15 million cases and more than 290,000 confirmed deaths, the COVID-19 pandemic is escalating in the U.S., stressing hospitals and communities nationwide. Meanwhile, while seasonal influenza activity is lower so far this year, it’s beginning to grow as well, threatening a so-called twindemic.
With both influenza and COVID-19 spreading in communities, there is a requirement of differential diagnosis and treatment approaches, taxing doctors’ offices, emergency departments and hospitals. More individuals will become sick, especially the very young, older adults and individuals with chronic illnesses like diabetes and heart disease, who are at much higher risk of hospitalization, disability and death. Studies suggest that an individual who develops both COVID-19 and influenza faces more significant symptoms and risk of death. It is important to get a flu shot to prevent a greater toll on our communities and health systems.
COVID-19 dramatically, and surprisingly to many, exposed the continuing racial and ethnic health disparities that plague our country, with higher rates of infection, morbidity and mortality suffered by people of color, a reflection of living conditions, treatment access and their prominent roles as essential workers. Management of influenza shows similar racial and ethnic disparities, with sustained lower immunization rates among Blacks and Latinx, a trend that may be worsening.
Our own research shows that in Medicare—which provides free flu vaccinations to beneficiaries—Blacks and Hispanics were 30% less likely to get any flu vaccine, even adjusting for demographic and clinical factors. Unsurprisingly, Blacks, Native Americans and Hispanics experienced the highest rates of flu-associated hospitalization over the last 10 years. It is important to get a flu shot to promote health equity.
The Center for Sustainable Health Care Quality and Equity, part of the National Minority Quality Forum, which is focused on promoting sustainable health outcomes for all, has been working with clinicians and health systems nationwide to promote influenza immunization, especially in communities of color, providing a variety of free resources. Through patient and provider education, along with quality-improvement activities that help clinics track their vaccination rates and implement strategies to enhance vaccination, we have seen many health systems raise flu vaccine rates 10% to 40% in a given season. It is important to get a flu shot because healthcare providers can effectively protect their patients.
Trust remains a real issue in communities of color. Lack of trust in developing COVID-19 vaccines and historic disparities in flu vaccination is a natural outgrowth of the implicit racism, historic abuse and lack of transparency and inclusion in the medical system experienced by Blacks and others. Research has shown that many Blacks and other people of color have less knowledge of vaccine development processes and the risk of vaccines versus influenza itself; see vaccination less of a norm in their communities; face more barriers to receiving a vaccine; and perceive and experience more discrimination in the healthcare system.
However, people of color do trust their physicians and their recommendations. In addition, communicating the benefits of vaccination to family and community can be extremely strong motivators, especially when the information comes from a trusted voice, be it one’s physician or other leaders in the community. There is much work to be done to promote health equity, by policymakers and the healthcare system. Religious leaders, service providers such as barbers, as well as local business, education, media and sports figures trusted by their communities can play a pivotal role in promoting flu vaccination. Importantly, community engagement must be authentic, with questions being addressed and plans for providing vaccines developed in partnership with the community.
We urge everyone, especially people of color, to get a flu shot. It is an action that we can take to protect ourselves, our families and our communities.