Although the American public got somewhat of a reprieve last year from influenza, with the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reporting "unusually low" flu activity, the agency is taking a "full steam ahead" approach as the 2021-2022 flu season approaches.
The CDC advises that last year's reduced flu season could actually result in a more severe outbreak this year, "Reduced population immunity due to lack of flu virus activity since March 2020 could result in an early and possibly severe flu season," the agency wrote on its website.
The agency credits much of the work done by Americans to protect themselves from the COVID-19 virus – wearing face masks, staying home, hand washing, school closures, reduced travel, physical distancing – for helping to reduce the severity of seasonal influenza. In addition, the CDC notes a record number of influenza vaccine doses - 193.8 million – were distributed throughout the country.
In preparing for this year's flu season, pharmacists will again be on the front lines, administering vaccines and ensuring patients have the medications and supplies they need. Although precise guidance for the timing of flu vaccinations has not yet been issued, the CDC has provided information that can help pharmacists prepare. A few important things to know include:
- Flu vaccines and COVID-19 vaccines can be given at the same time (updated guidance).
- In March 2021 the Food and Drug Administration's Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee (VRBPAC) selected the influenza viruses for the composition of the influenza vaccine for the 2021-2022 flu season. The group determined that flu vaccines would be designed to protect against the four viruses that research indicated will be most common and provided guidance to manufacturers with regard to vaccine components.
- All flu vaccines are quadrivalent (four component), meaning they are designed to protect against the four different flu viruses.
- The Flucelvax Quadrivalent vaccine is now approved for people 2 years of age and older.
Consistent with past years, CDC is highlighting flu-related guidance that includes:
- All persons six months of age and older are recommended for annual vaccination, with rare exception.
- Vaccination is particularly important for people who are high risk of developing serious flu complications
People who can get the flu shot:
- Different flu shots are approved for people of different ages. Everyone should get a vaccine that is appropriate for their age.
- There are inactivated influenza vaccines (IIV) that are approved for people as young as six months of age.
- Some vaccines are only approved for adults. For example, the recombinant influenza vaccine (RIV) is approved for people aged 18 years and older, and the adjuvanted and high-dose inactivated vaccines are approved for people 65 years of age and older.
- Pregnant women and people with certain chronic health conditions can get a flu shot.
- Most people with egg allergies can get a flu shot.
People who SHOULD NOT get the flu shot:
- Children younger than six months of age who are too young to get a flu shot.
- People with severe, life-threatening allergies to flu vaccine or any ingredient in the vaccine. This might include gelatin, antibiotics, or other ingredients.
People who should talk to their health care provider before getting a flu shot:
- Anyone with an allergy to eggs or any of the ingredients in the vaccine.
- People who have ever had Guillain-Barre Syndrome (a severe paralyzing illness, also called GBS). Some people with a history of GBS should not get a vaccine, which is why a doctor should be consulted ahead of time.
- Anyone not feeling well should consult a physician about their symptoms.
At one point during last year's flu season, pharmacies marked a 35 percent year-over-year increase in the number of adult influenza vaccines administered. Walgreen's reported a 60 percent increase, with CVS expecting that flu shots administered during 2020 would be twice the number administered during 2019.
As pharmacist prepare for the 2021 flu season, there is reason to expect – and hope – that this trend will continue. This is especially likely since revised CDC guidance now provides for COVID-19 vaccines to be administered at the same time as flu vaccines.