With flu season just around the corner, now is the perfect time to highlight some good news about vaccination rates for older adults. During the 2020-2021 flu season, adults 65 and older for the first time surpassed a certain flu vaccination goal, and by a significant margin. By May 2021, people 65 and older achieved a vaccination rate of 75.2 percent, significantly exceeding the 70 percent goal set by Healthy People 2030, an initiative of the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion in the US Department of Health and Human Services.
Nevertheless, despite the achievement, a look at the data reveals there is more work to be done.
Healthy People 2030 sets data-driven objectives to improve the health and well-being of Americans over the next decade. Leading Health Indicators (LHI) are a small subset of high-priority Healthy People 2030 objectives that address major causes of disease and death in the United States.
The goal of the flu vaccine LHI is to raise the proportion of people ages six months and older who receive a vaccine from 49.2 percent (the baseline level from the 2017-2018 flu season) to 70.0 percent. The 2020-2021 rate for all age groups came in at 52.1 percent. In other words, some age groups are doing better than others, particularly when you consider the strong showing by adults 65 and older.
Adults 65 and older were the only age group to reach the 70 percent goal during the 2020-2021 flu season, according to vaccination coverage data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The group’s 75.2 percent rate bested their vaccination rate of 69.8 percent for the 2019-2020 flu season (figure).
Meanwhile, another group of older adults did not come close to reaching the goal. Flu vaccinations among adults 50-64 in 2020-2021 increased by 7 percent over the previous year but, at 54.2 percent, remained well below the Healthy People 2030 goal.
Age is not the only source of discrepancy in vaccination rates. Despite adults ages 65 and older surpassing the Healthy People 2030 flu vaccination goal during the 2020-2021 flu season, separate analyses conducted by the AARP Public Policy Institute reveal stark differences by race and ethnicity. More specifically, among adults 50 and older, white and Asian respondents to the National Health Interview Survey were much more likely to have reported getting a flu vaccine in 2020 than Black, Hispanic, and American Indian/Alaska Native respondents.
Figure: Flu vaccinations among adults 50-64 and 65+ in the United States, 2009-10 to 2020-21
Data as a Pathway to Tactics
The COVID-19 pandemic undoubtedly affected the uptake of flu vaccinations during the 2020-2021 flu season. During the pandemic, the CDC went to great lengths to encourage flu vaccinations, especially among older adults, who are most at risk of adverse outcomes from flu and COVID infections. The CDC also obtained 10 million more adult vaccine doses than usual and engaged in targeted communications and outreach campaigns. Meeting the Healthy People 2030 goals—and ensuring that all people are part of the achievement—will require access to disaggregated data by age, race, ethnicity, and other social and demographic factors. That data will inform where further interventions are needed so vaccination rates can continue to rise.