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Opinion/Commentary: This year, flu shots more important that ever

Opinion/Commentary: This year, flu shots more important that ever

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This year has burdened us all with a widespread health tragedy of previously unimaginable proportions.

As of this writing, there have been more than 30 million confirmed COVID-19 infections across the globe and we are approaching 1 million lives lost due to this pandemic.

Here in the United States, some 6.7 million cases have been counted and nearly 200,000 deaths (one-fifth of the total casualties) have occurred. Virginia accounts for more than 141,000 of those confirmed cases and more than 3,000 deaths.

Those numbers continue to rise and are almost certainly an underrepresentation of the true toll of this deadly virus.

As fate would have it, we continue to battle the effects of COVID-19 as influenza season approaches. And because of that, it is more critical than ever for all Virginians to get a flu shot this year.

The fact of the matter is that millions of Americans get the flu each year. During the 2019-2020 flu season, the virus resulted in more than 18 million medical visits, 410,000 hospitalizations, and at least 24,000 deaths.

This year, flu season arrives while our commonwealth, the nation, and the world remain mired in a fight against the virulent coronavirus pathogen. While we don’t yet have a COVID-19 vaccine to protect ourselves — one hopefully is coming in the not too distant future, and it is important for people to get that vaccination when it is accessible — we do have a flu shot that is readily available to Virginians.

The flu shot is low cost or no cost for many Virginians with commercial insurance. All Virginia Medicaid members have access to no-cost flu shots this year during the public health emergency. Free clinics also offer no-cost flu shots to uninsured patients based on availability. So there is no reason not to get a flu shot.

In addition to dealing with an unprecedented health crisis, this year has exposed some hard truths about racial inequality and the harm it continues to visit upon people across this nation.

The COVID-19 pandemic has shone a spotlight on legacy disparities in health outcomes that disproportionately impact black and brown communities.

For instance, a 12-state analysis by the Journal of the American Medical Association published in August found that Black, Latino, and Asian people had much higher hospitalization rates for COVID-19 than their white counterparts despite representing a significantly smaller share of the overall population.

When it comes to flu shots, data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tell us that Black, Latino, and Asian adults have lower average flu vaccination rates than white adults.

Overall, the CDC reports that during the 2018-19 flu season, just 45.3% of U.S. adults (ages 18 and older) and 62.6% of children (ages 6 months to 17 years) received the flu vaccine.

At a time when we continue to face a global pandemic and the onset of flu season, it is imperative for everyone to practice healthy behaviors that reduce the risk of becoming ill. This advice applies to people young and old and of all ethnicities, and especially for those in vulnerable and underserved communities.

Getting a flu shot for yourself and your family, and encouraging everyone you know to do likewise, is a simple, common sense step you can take to protect your health. Getting a flu shot means you are much less likely to contract the flu, and that your symptoms will be less severe if you get sick.

So please, get your flu shot. It’s the right thing to do.

Dr. M. Norman Oliver is the state health commissioner with the Virginia Department of Health. Dr. Reid B. Adams is the chief medical officer for the University of Virginia Health System.

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