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Seasonal flu activity is lower than normal. Noam Galai/Getty Images
  • More adults have gotten the flu shot in pharmacies in 2020 compared to last year’s flu season.
  • But vaccination rates among certain groups — such as non-Hispanic Black adults and children — seem to have dropped off a bit.
  • Even though flu activity is low, and overall vaccination rates are strong, the flu is out there and could surge at any moment.

Flu activity remains unusually low this year, largely in part to all the restrictions put in place for COVID-19.

Flu vaccines also rolled out earlier this year.

As of late November 2020, 188 million doses of the flu vaccine had been shipped out across the country, according to a new flu vaccination dashboard from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

More adults have been vaccinated in pharmacies in 2020 compared to last year’s flu season, but vaccination rates among certain groups — such as non-Hispanic Black adults and children — seem to have dropped off a bit.

Even though flu activity is low and overall vaccination rates are strong, the flu is still out there and could surge at any moment.

Last week, the country reported its first pediatric death, a child with underlying health issues who experienced complications after contracting an influenza B virus.

“Even though it’s smoldering out there, it could take off at any time,” said Dr. William Schaffner, the medical director of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases and a professor in the division of infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine.

Over 188 million doses of flu vaccine have been distributed so far this year.

That’s a sharp increase from the 169 million doses that had been sent out at this time last year, and 163 million doses that were distributed at this point in 2018.

Schaffner believes most of these doses have been inoculated into people.

“Flu vaccination in the community started earlier this year, as recommended by the CDC, and our community physicians report that vaccine uptake has been higher than usual,” said Dr. Marie-Louise Landry, a Yale Medicine infectious diseases expert and the director of the Yale Clinical Virology Laboratory.

The CDC reported that as of Nov. 21, 44.5 million flu vaccines had been administered in adults in pharmacies so far this year, compared to 30.4 million at the same time in 2019.

Vaccination rates among children, pregnant people, and Hispanic people are in line with the rates reported in 2019.

According to the CDC, the vaccination gap is most pronounced in non-Hispanic Black children between the ages of 6 months and 17 years.

Approximately 33 percent of Black children have received the flu shot this year, compared to 44 percent at the same time last year.

Nearly 51 percent of white children and 47 percent of Hispanic kids have been vaccinated, which is similar to last year’s vaccination coverage.

The racial disparities reported in this year’s vaccination rates aren’t new.

In the 2019–2020 flu season, the overall flu vaccination rate for adults was 48 percent.

A closer look at the data shows that 38 percent of Hispanic or Latino adults got vaccinated, plus 41 percent of Black people, and 42 percent of native individuals.

In comparison, 53 percent of white people received the flu shot.

Marginalized communities often have greater difficulty accessing medical care, said Schaffner. There are typically fewer doctors located in the community and lack of transportation may prevent people from seeking preventive care.

There may also be widespread distrust of the medical community, particularly among Black and Hispanic individuals.

Flu activity is significantly lower compared to previous years.

Landry said she usually sees influenza pick up in December, soar after Christmas, and peak between January and February.

“By this time in December last year, we had diagnosed over 100 flu cases in our laboratory. This year we have had none,” Landry said.

It’s thought that flu transmission has been suppressed by the precautions in place for COVID-19.

“It is possible that the mitigation measures for SARS-CoV-2 [such as social distancing, remote working, and mask wearing] will help curb the spread of flu [and] other respiratory viruses as well, since these viruses are transmitted in similar ways,” said Dr. Ellen F. Foxman, an immunologist and Yale Medicine Laboratory Medicine physician.

Typically, school-aged children fuel the transmission of the flu in their communities.

Kids are known to transmit more of the flu virus and to spread it for longer, according to Schaffner.

“They’re the real engine. They spread it among themselves, and then they bring it home and give it to parents and relatives,” Schaffner said.

Landry said the safety measures put in place to prevent COVID-19 in schools — such as masks, physical distancing, staggered arrival times, and virtual learning — has likely offset flu transmission.

All that being said, the flu is still out there.

“It is scattered pretty much throughout the country; it’s not as though some places have a lot and other places have nothing. It’s kind of scattered and stuttering out there throughout the country,” Schaffner said.

H1N1 appears to be the predominant strain right now, according to Schaffner. H1N1 struck toward the end of the 2019–2020 flu season and has likely carried over into this season.

Foxman said even though activity is currently mild, the flu could still take off.

“The exact timing of flu season varies from year to year, so we cannot be complacent, and it is very important for everyone to get the flu vaccine this year,” Foxman said.

If you haven’t gotten the flu shot yet, now is a good time to do so.

“It’s not too late to get vaccinated,” Schaffner said. “If you have not been vaccinated against flu, please go ahead and do that. That’s always the safe thing to do.”

Flu activity remains surprisingly low this year, largely in part to the safety precautions in place to prevent COVID-19.

Furthermore, more flu vaccines have been shipped out this year than ever before, and overall flu vaccination rates are strong.

There’s still time for the flu to explode. Flu cases are scattered across the country right now, and the first pediatric death was reported last week.