Influenza vaccine is now being shipped to New Jersey, and perhaps never before has a strong, widespread flu vaccination effort been more critical to the health and safety of our residents.
There is no vaccine against COVID-19. But we do have an effective flu vaccine. The upcoming winter could be among the deadliest in our lifetimes if influenza further burdens a health care system already besieged by the pandemic. And it’s possible that people could be simultaneously infected with both the flu and COVID.
We expect an increase in demand for the flu vaccine. At the same time, many of the traditional ways people obtain their flu shots — such as workplace clinics, school health fairs and senior centers — will likely be closed.
In New Jersey, adult flu vaccination rates are estimated at 42 percent, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Moreover, the CDC puts us smack in the middle of states regarding MMR vaccination rates for kindergartners. Just 70 percent of children aged one-and-a-half years old to three-years-old have had all seven recommended vaccinations.
These middle-of-the-road vaccination rates are not good enough — especially now.
The state’s Healthy New Jersey 2020 immunization goals, which include getting at least 70 percent of adults over the age of 65 to get the flu vaccine each year, have not been met and performance on most of the goals, unfortunately, is not progressing in the right direction.
So, we have challenging work ahead as we strive to improve our vaccination rates. Providers are finding creative and safe ways to inoculate their patients, including using long corridors and open areas rather than small offices. Pharmacies are setting up offsite, sometimes outdoor and drive-through, clinics to distribute vaccines and enabling people to prepare paperwork online.
And more can be done. We need to give local health departments the funding and staff to enforce vaccination requirements. Additionally, we need mandatory universal (include people of all ages) reporting on immunizations to the New Jersey Immunization Information System to track our rates, support outreach and reminders, to identify which vaccines are most effective, and to identify disparities. Right now, providers only need to report immunizations for children up to age seven.
But no matter what steps we take to obtain the vaccines, and to deliver them safely, unless people trust the health care system and vaccines we will continue to have average results. We know mistrust of vaccines exists, particularly within Black and Hispanic communities. The CDC, citing various surveys, reports white adults had the highest rates of annual flu vaccination nationally (68 percent to 75.1 percent), compared with Black adults (53 percent -64.3 percent) or Hispanic adults (57.5 percent–64.1 percent).
As we work to improve our vaccination rates, we must prioritize efforts in our most vulnerable and economically disadvantaged communities, and acknowledge the understandable distrust of the health care system, which is based on previous unethical and dangerous medical studies on Black people and overall racial bias within the system.
Indeed, a recent survey by Tufts University’s Research Group on Equity in Health, Wealth and Civic Engagement reported that just 49 percent of Black Americans would accept a COVID vaccine compared with 58 percent of white Americans. Overall, just 57 percent of Americans say they would get a COVID vaccine. These numbers show that there is a troubling trust gap.
I believe the path to improvement is honest engagement based on facts, including the benefits and risks — and vocal leadership from health care providers, public health officials, and elected officials. Trusted medical and community leaders are the best messengers to encourage people to keep up with their immunizations.
We must make improvements for the current flu season and for any future COVID vaccine. How we handle the flu vaccine is a test run for how well we as communities, as a state, and as a nation will handle any future COVID vaccines, which we hope will be available one day.
I’m calling on all of our members to work with your communities — such as mayors, community groups, religious entities — and in partnership with physicians, nurses, pharmacists and other public health experts to express your trust in vaccines. We need your voices.
We need to think big. Just this week, the World Health Organization announced the eradication of polio in Africa. The potential of vaccines is enormous, and we have the resources in New Jersey to make a difference. We can engage our communities, outline the benefits of vaccines, and get out the facts. Trusted providers should be front and center delivering this message. The rest of us need to support them. We can start right now with the flu vaccine.