MILWAUKEE — Public health experts are predicting this year’s flu season will be far worse than last year, with kids back in classrooms and fewer COVID-19 mitigation efforts in place.
A doctor with the American Medical Association says there’s no harm in getting a flu shot and a COVID-19 vaccine in the same trip to the pharmacy because one can go in each arm. But just like with the COVID-19 vaccine, public health leaders are seeing plenty of hesitancy when it comes to flu shots.
Lisa Moy of Milwaukee showed up to North Shore Pharmacy Tuesday to get her third COVID-19 shot, as she’s now eligible for the booster dose.
“I just kind of always have been 'anti-vax', but with COVID I just thought, 'no, I've got to do this,’” she said. “Not only for myself, but for everyone."
Although Lisa overcame her hesitancy when it came to the COVID-19 vaccine, she isn’t sold on getting a flu shot.
"The flu shot wasn't a big deal because I've never had the flu, but the COVID obviously is a very big deal,” Lisa said.
COVID-19 mitigation efforts led to an extraordinarily low number of people getting the flu in the United States last year, at just over 2,000 cases according to the Centers for Disease and Prevention. Dr. Willie Underwood does not believe that will be the case this year.
“We don't know if it's going to be a stronger strain or not, but most likely it's hitting us harder this year because we weren't exposed last year,” he said.
Dr. Underwood is on the Board of Trustees at the American Medical Association. The organization estimates 41 million Americans will get the flu this winter and 710,000 will be hospitalized.
“We know that our health system is being taxed severely due to COVID and to add to that, think about it for a second, we're going to add an additional 710,000 people being hospitalized when we see increased numbers from the flu,” he said.
That’s why Dr. Underwood urges his eligible patients to get both vaccines, but hesitancy and documented racial disparities exist with the flu shot, much like it does with COVID-19. The American Medical Association says 55 percent of white people get the annual influenza vaccine, compared to just 40 percent of African Americans and 38 percent of Hispanics.
“Blacks are 1.8 times more likely and Hispanics are 1.2 times more likely to be hospitalized from the flu compared to whites,” he said. “Our children, especially between the ages of 0 to 4, are three times more likely to end up in the hospital, ICU or dying from the flu compared to whites."
Dr. Underwood says if you haven’t gotten your COVID-19 vaccine or flu shot yet, it’s OK to do it at the same time since the flu shot typically comes with one minor side effect of a sore arm. Lisa says even if she decides to take her doctor’s advice and get the flu shot, she wouldn’t double up on the same day.
"I think it would be kind of scary to have both shots,” she said. “If I was going to consider it, I would space it apart."
Annual flu shots are typically between 40-60 percent effective year-to-year at preventing infection. Dr. Underwood says the rates are much high when it comes to preventing serious illness and death.