Americans are getting flu shots more enthusiastically than before COVID but not as early as in 2020


HARRISBURG, Pa. (WHTM) — We hear the pleas. But are we listening?

Get a flu shot, CDC and other health officials have urged. They urge that every year, but people listened in unprecedented numbers in 2020, at least partly explaining an unprecedentedly mild flu season — infections dropped 95% in Pennsylvania compared to 2019. Masking and social distancing, in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19, likely also explained the plummeting influenza cases.

So what about 2021?

“We’re seeing those vaccines really start to pick up now,” Chris Altman, director of immunizations for Camp Hill-based Rite Aid said. “We’re not seeing the same degree of urgency we saw last year.”

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Those statements, said one right after the other, might seem contradictory, but Altman explained: In 2020, significant numbers of Americans rushed to get flu shots as early as August when they first became available. In 2021, early-October demand is higher than during the same period in pre-pandemic years, although the chain of about 2,500 pharmacies didn’t experience as much demand in August and September as it did in record-breaking 2020.

CVS, with about 10,000 pharmacies — although less specific about timing — similarly indicated demand would remain more buoyant than in pre-pandemic flu seasons.

“Last year, we administered 20 million flu shots, which was double the number of flu shots we had the previous year,” a company spokeswoman wrote. “This year, we expect a similar volume of flu vaccinations and have taken proactive measures to secure access to flu shots for patients at their local CVS Pharmacy or MinuteClinic location.”

Among other national pharmacy chains, Walgreens (about 9,000 pharmacies) declined to provide figures, and Walmart (about 4,700) didn’t answer a reply seeking details in response to an initial message affirming the company’s commitment to “make it easier than ever for our customers to get their flu shots.”

One pharmacist said there’s actually nothing wrong, and perhaps something right, with getting a shot in October rather than August or September.

“I had encouraged people to wait until October because the flu shot lasts about four months, and peak flu season is generally January, February, and March,” Bethany Miller, pharmacist and owner of Lion Pharmacy in Red Lion, Pa., said.

Altman of Rite Aid said to keep in mind the lag time — about 14 days — between getting a shot and reaching peak immunity.

“It’s not like you get the vaccine this afternoon and then this evening, hooray, you’re protected,” he said.

As for why less early-season flu shot euphoria in 2021 than in 2020, Altman said, remember the mindset and the messaging back then.

“The message was: ‘Get the vaccine so you don’t go to the hospital,’ because resources weren’t really there to help,” he said. But “that hasn’t necessarily changed this year. We still see hospitals really under stress.”

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