Should you get the new flu, COVID vaccines? What you need to know

Doctors in the Lehigh Valley say they’re seeing normal seasonal demand for the flu vaccine, but hesitancy around the COVID-19 vaccine may be keeping some from getting the updated shots.

Lehigh Valley Health Network has free walk-in and drive-in flu vaccine clinics scheduled throughout October and early November. St. Luke’s University Health Network also has the flu vaccine available at pediatric, family doctor and primary care offices.

This year’s flu vaccine appears to be a good match for the dominant strains of flu that have been circulating — it’s about 52% effective at reducing hospitalizations, data shows — and there is ample supply available in the Lehigh Valley.

Dr. Jeffry Jahre, senior vice president of medical and academic affairs and chief emeritus of infectious diseases for St. Luke’s, said everyone eligible to receive the flu vaccine should take it. And so far, uptake has been good among St. Luke’s employees and patients, he said.

“Requests for flu vaccine this year are good, they’re not any less than what they have been in the past,” Jahre said. “As a whole, we have found the compliance, the uptake of influenza vaccines is actually on par with what we have seen in the past.”

Dr. Alex Benjamin, LVHN’s chief infection control and prevention officer, said that so far, volumes of people getting the flu vaccines at their clinics are the same as this time last year, about 10,000. But he said LVHN only began offering the flu shot at clinics and practices last week, and with its annual drive-thru clinic at Dorney Park several weeks away, he said they could double those numbers.

LVHN spokesperson Brian Downs added that some patients defer their flu shot to later this month or November so that can have optimal protection during months that are usually the peak times for flu circulation. By early December, LVHN will have a will know more on public interest in the vaccine and about the significance of flu, Downs said.

Though flu vaccines have been available since early August and in some locations since July, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention do not have much data available yet on flu vaccine uptake. A recent survey conducted among roughly 20,000 U.S. adults found that about 14% had received their flu vaccine.

The severity of this flu season is also up in the air; the Pennsylvania Department of Health is not yet sharing data for this flu season on its website.

Jahre said flu definitely already is in the Lehigh Valley, albeit limited to a small number of cases, about 10 to 15 per week.

“Are we seeing influenza already? The answer of course to that is yes. It hasn’t certainly peaked in any way, shape or form,” Jahre said.

Australia, which experiences its flu season during the Northern Hemisphere’s summer, reported a somewhat mild flu season; reported and confirmed cases were moderate and the number of deaths and direct intensive care unit admissions associated with influenza were low.

Benjamin said that is encouraging; also, unlike last year when flu and respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, already were taking off at this point, that is not the case in the Lehigh Valley and much of the U.S.

Jahre said if previous years are an indication, once people start spending more time inside with lots of other people such as during the holidays, the flu season is likely to pick up, though this isn’t set in stone.

COVID vaccine uptake slows

New COVID-19 mRNA vaccines also are available, which were approved by the CDC and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in September. An updated Novavax vaccine also received approval in early October. The mRNA vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna are approved for and recommended for those 6 months and older. The Novavax vaccine is for those 12 and older.

The actual efficacy of the vaccines is currently unknown as the approval of each was contingent on their ability to produce a certain level of antibodies. Jahre said there is every reason to believe the vaccine will perform as expected. Benjamin shared a similar sentiment and said he expects these vaccines will perform comparably to previous vaccines.

Unlike the bivalent booster shots given out last year, the new shots are considered updated vaccines and are based on one strain, in this case the omicron XBB.1.5 variant. As of last week, about 4 million Americans had received the new COVID-19, according to ABC News. About half of adults said they planned on getting the vaccine, according to Kaiser Family Foundation’s COVID-19 Vaccine Monitor.

Benjamin said that networkwide, LVHN has distributed about 5,000 doses of the new COVID-19 vaccines, primarily the Pfizer version. He said this low number is to be expected since the vaccine has only be available for a few weeks.

“I think there’s a common pattern: Early adopters are the first ones in line making their appointments and getting their vaccines. There’s also a population who are not going to get vaccinated right away, the vaccine-hesitant. There are probably people who have had COVID in the recent past and don’t think they need vaccines right away,” Benjamin said.

A St. Luke’s spokesperson said the network did not have data available on doses of the new COVID-19 vaccine. Jahre said low uptake and high levels of hesitancy toward getting the COVID-19 vaccine also partially can be attributed to health experts and the government not doing a good job of communicating what the COVID vaccine is capable of doing.

He said that like the flu vaccine, COVID-19 vaccines are best at preventing serious illness, not preventing you from catching the disease.

“We’ve made it clear to people that if they get influenza and they’ve been vaccinated appropriately, the chances of them having the worst consequences of the disease, hospitalization and death, go down enormously,” Jahre said. “It’s not made clear to people that the same situation exists, that you can’t rely on the monovalent [COVID-19] vaccine to absolutely prevent disease.”

Should you get the flu and COVID vaccine at the same time?

Jahre added that despite the federal government suggesting getting both the flu and COVID-19 vaccines at the same time is fine, he said that might not be the best idea, except from a convenience and potentially cost-saving perspective. He said for older people in particular it may be better to split these vaccinations up as they tend to experience more non-serious side effects.

Jahre added that boys and men ages 12 to 39 may be at higher risk of myocarditis as a complication of the monovalent mRNA vaccines. He said men in this age group who are otherwise healthy and do not live with or have frequent contact with high-risk patients may want to talk with their physician about alternatives such as the Novavax vaccine.

COVID-19 hospitalizations in the Lehigh Valley are low; Jahre said networkwide St. Luke’s has been in the low 20s as far as patients hospitalized for COVID. Benjamin said for LVHN, it was in the high 20s until recently but last week those numbers fell to less than 15.

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