ANN ARBOR, Mich. — While the severity of a coronavirus spike this winter is still up for debate, health officials are now worrying about a potential “double whammy” of illnesses striking children across the United States. Researchers with the University of Michigan find one in three parents are not planning to take their children to get a flu shot.
The survey is sparking new concerns that a combination of COVID-19 and flu cases may overwhelm hospitals in the coming months.
C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital’s national poll on children’s health reveals 68 percent of U.S. parents are likely or very likely to get their children a flu vaccine. Despite the emphasis on public health during the pandemic, researchers find few people are actually changing their view on vaccinations.
“We may see peaks of flu and COVID-19 at the same time, which could overwhelm the health care system, strain testing capacity and potentially reduce our ability to catch and treat both respiratory illnesses effectively,” says Mott Poll co-director Sarah Clark in a university release.
“Our report finds that even during the pandemic, some parents don’t see the flu vaccine as more urgent or necessary. This heightens concerns about how the onset of flu season may compound challenges in managing COVID-19.”
What’s keeping parents away from the flu shot?
The national report by Mott Children’s Hospital includes 1,992 responses from parents of children between two and 18 years-old surveyed in August.
Of the 32 percent of parents not planning to vaccinate their kids against influenza, 42 percent say concerns about side-effects drive their decision. Four in 10 say they don’t believe a flu shot is necessary and a third think flu shots don’t work.
While physicians say it’s more important than ever do get the annual vaccine, some parents say the pandemic is actually keeping them away from the doctor. The survey finds 14 percent of these parents are not getting their children flu shots because they worry about contracting COVID-19 at their local health care facility. Nine percent add their child is afraid of needles and doesn’t want to go.
“There is a lot of misinformation about the flu vaccine, but it is the best defense for children against serious health consequences of influenza and the risk of spreading it to others,” Clark says.
Overall, less than a third of the anti-flu shot parents say they’ll likely change that stance this year. In comparison, 96 percent of parents who opted to get their children flu shots in 2019 are doing so again in 2020.
The survey also shows parents of older children are less likely to take their youngsters for a vaccine. Seventy-three percent of parents with children ages two to four are likely to get flu vaccines. That number falls to 65 percent among parents with kids between 13 and 18.
Telehealth visits can mean trouble for awareness
Clark and her team find COVID-19 restrictions may be playing a big role to lowering the public’s awareness of flu season. With many doctors using telehealth visits during coronavirus quarantines, researchers say this is giving physicians less of a chance to talk to patients about flu shots.
“A key challenge for public health officials is how to reach parents who do not routinely seek seasonal flu vaccination for their child,” Clark explains. “When getting a yearly flu vaccine is not a pattern, parents need to be prompted to think about why it’s essential for their child to get vaccinated.”
The study suggests healthcare professionals use website banners and mailing reminder cards to families who visit their practice. Researchers add it’s especially important to promote flu shots since some other locations which provide vaccines may be closed due to COVID. Those options include schools, health fairs, and walk-in clinics.
“Children should get the flu vaccine not only to protect themselves but to prevent the spread of influenza to family members and those who are at higher risk of serious complications,” Clark concludes.