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It’s Not Too Late to Get Vaccinated for the Flu, COVID-19, and RSV

A pregnant woman smiles, her shoulder bandaged after receiving a vaccine

Getting vaccinated is the most effective way to protect yourself against influenza (flu), COVID-19, and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV). That’s especially true for people who are at a higher risk of severe illness from respiratory diseases, including young children, older adults, pregnant people, and people with underlying medical conditions.

The incidence of these viruses can fluctuate. Cases are currently on the decline in the Philadelphia region, but they are rising in other parts of the country and could rise again in our area.

The good news is that if you haven’t gotten vaccinated, there’s still time for you to schedule your vaccinations and get protected.

An Alarming Decline in Vaccinations

Current vaccination rates for respiratory viruses, especially COVID-19, are low worldwide. In the U.S., the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued an advisory in December to alert health care providers about low rates of vaccination for flu, COVID-19, and RSV.

In the Philadelphia region, many health systems have also noticed a decrease in vaccinations for flu, COVID-19, and RSV. This has prompted some health systems to begin requiring staff to wear masks. They have also reached out to me and other medical directors at Independence Blue Cross to help spread the word about the importance of vaccinations.

Why Aren’t People Getting Vaccinated?

There are a number of reasons for the decline in vaccination rates. Some of the most likely reasons include:

  • Confusing messaging. When flu was the primary winter illness that people were concerned about, the message was simple — “Get your annual flu shot!” But now we face more than just one serious viral threat. The surge in COVID-19 and RSV cases means that we must now promote three vaccinations instead of one.
  • Vaccine fatigue. The constant stress many people felt when the pandemic was at its peak has left them wanting to move on from thinking about COVID-19 and vaccines. While that’s understandable, serious viruses still exist and continue to be potentially dangerous, so we need to take precautions against them.
  • COVID-19 vaccine requirements lifted. Some employers required their workers to get COVID-19 vaccinations. Many of these mandates have been lifted, which may have caused vaccination rates to drop.
  • Vaccine hesitancy. Misinformation about the effectiveness and potential side effects of vaccines has caused some people to rethink getting vaccinated.
  • Timing. Many people feel getting a flu shot is only worthwhile at the start of flu season. They may also remember not feeling well for a day or two after getting previous vaccinations, so they have concerns about missing work or not being able to take care of other responsibilities due to side effects.

All of these factors can affect whether people get vaccinated. The reasons for not getting vaccinated may be personal, but that choice can negatively impact family, friends, colleagues, and neighbors. When vaccination rates are low, everyone is more vulnerable to illness. That includes people who are unable to get vaccinated due to age, health conditions, or other medical issues.

It’s Not Too Late to Get Vaccinated Now

It may be February, but we’re not out of the woods yet — the flu season can extend into April, so it’s not too late to get vaccinated and protect yourself and your loved ones.

If you’re feeling hesitant, let me assure you that vaccines for respiratory viruses work. All vaccines go through multiple clinical trials to ensure they are safe and effective before they’re approved for public use. They also don’t make you sick. While you may experience some temporary side effects, they’re typically short-lived and much less severe than the symptoms of flu, COVID-19, and RSV. If you’re worried the side effects may impair your ability to work, schedule your vaccines for a weekend and use them as an excuse to relax.

Additionally, getting vaccinated for respiratory diseases is easier than ever. Vaccines are available in many stand-alone pharmacies, as well as the pharmacy sections of many supermarkets. You can even get multiple shots during the same appointment.

If you’re having trouble scheduling vaccinations due to lack of access to transportation, see if your community offers local transport options like para-transit. Public transportation may also offer free or low-cost services based on your age. Lastly, check with your primary care doctor’s staff. They might be able to connect you with local resources that can help.

Make a Plan for This Fall

While it’s not too late to get vaccinated for respiratory viruses, you shouldn’t make late-season vaccinations a habit. Vaccines for new viruses usually come out in September, so you have plenty of time to get vaccinated before the viruses start circulating widely.

Next fall, I recommend that you make getting vaccinated part of your — and your family’s — annual routine. Prioritize it in the same way you schedule a dentist’s checkup or an annual physical. It’s an easy, fast, and effective way to set up you and your loved ones for a healthy fall and winter.

Remember, we’re all in this together! The higher the vaccination rates are in a region, the less likely viruses are to spread. Do your part and get vaccinated for flu, COVID-19, and, if you’re eligible, RSV. Come September, get a head start and protect yourself early.

This blog was originally published on Philly Voice.

Dr. Ellen Riccobene

Dr. Ellen Riccobene, a board-certified internist, is the IBX Medicare STARs clinical team senior medical director. Dr. Riccobene also serves as the medical director liaison for IBX local and national customers. She graduated from Tulane University, summa cum laude, and received her medical degree from Georgetown University School of Medicine. She completed her residency in internal medicine at Georgetown University Hospital. Before joining Independence Blue Cross in 2008, Dr. Riccobene served as an internal medicine residency director.