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Flu, Respiratory Viruses ‘Back With a Vengeance’ as Experts Brace for COVID Winter

Live Q&A on Coronavirus: COVID Boosters, Flu Season and the Impact on Nursing Homes

En español | Health officials are preparing for a long and difficult winter, as COVID-19, the flu and other respiratory viruses circulate while COVID booster and flu shot uptakes lag.

“The timing here is really terrible,” Céline Gounder, a senior fellow at the Kaiser Family Foundation, said Thursday on AARP’s latest COVID-19 tele-town hall. “We had the suppression of any number of respiratory viruses in 2020 and 2021 when people were masking and social distancing. And now those viruses like flu, like [respiratory syncytial virus] and so on, are coming back with a vengeance.”

As of mid-October, more than a million fewer flu shots had been administered nationally than at the same point last year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

AARP’s tele-town halls allow health experts to share the latest research and understanding of where we are in the pandemic — and answer listener questions. Gounder, who’s also editor at large for public health at Kaiser, attributed some of this year’s flu shot hesitancy to “resistance to COVID vaccination and the politicization of vaccines.” She warned that many hospitals are still dealing with COVID outbreaks and staffing shortages and could be overwhelmed this winter.

And COVID continues to evolve, with many minor cases now mirror the symptoms of a cold or flu, L.J. Tan, chief strategy officer at Immunization Action Coalition, said at the tele-town hall.  Tan stressed that even if someone is sick with the flu and not COVID, the diagnosis shouldn’t be taken lightly.

“Flu does not discriminate, whether you have a high risk condition or if you’re healthy. It can take you out,” he said, noting there are “hundreds of thousands of hospitalizations, potentially tens of thousands of deaths every flu season.”

That’s especially true for residents of nursing homes and other long-term care facilities, who are among the country’s most vulnerable to COVID and flu infections. Sam Brooks, director of public policy at the National Consumer Voice for Quality Long-Term Care, said on the tele-town hall  that long-term care staff booster and flu shot uptake is among the lowest in the country for health care professionals. He warned that unvaccinated staff put residents at risk and that more outreach is needed to help residents and their family members understand the protection boosters and flu shots provide.

“Unless we have a concerted effort really from the federal government and state government to say, ‘We need to do some education around this,’ we’re going to see these dismal numbers continue. And going into the fall flu and COVID season, it’s very concerning for us,” he said.

Listen to a recording of the tele-town hall.

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