Flu season is almost here. We spoke with Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about the best way to keep your family healthy this fall and winter with the double threats of COVID-19 and influenza. Spoiler: Get a flu shot!
Q: Everyone is understandably focused on COVID-19 this year. How should we be thinking about and preparing for the upcoming flu season?
Redfield: Many people right now are wondering: “Should I get a flu shot?” We really want to get the American public to a point where they are looking at the flu vaccine with confidence. When we look at it right now, less than 50% of all Americans get vaccinated against flu. Last year, 52% of 13- to 17-year-olds got vaccinated. The peak really is 6 months to age 4, when about 73% of parents get their kids vaccinated against flu, and then it falls progressively.
Q: What are the dangers of going unvaccinated for flu?
Redfield: Over 360,000 people died from flu in the last 10 years. So it’s not like this is some benign thing, but people don’t seem to have a sense of urgency sometimes when it comes to flu. And yet we have a flu vaccine, which we know really protects you against the deaths from flu.
Every year, we see hundreds of children die from flu. I lost one of my children from flu early after birth. It was very hard on my wife and me. And I think it would have been harder if I had known that it was preventable and I just didn’t take the time to get my kid vaccinated against flu. So I’m really hoping parents will take advantage of the importance of getting flu vaccine this season in particular.
It’s really important for parents to provide that leadership for their teens on the importance of getting a flu vaccine. Vaccines are the most important biomedical advance that we’ve ever had. Really, it’s the only tool we really have that has been shown to be able to eliminate disease in our world. It’s really critical.
Q: How do you expect COVID to affect our flu season this year?
Redfield: Hopefully by the end of the fall, early winter, we’ll have a new COVID vaccine, and hopefully that will have an impact on the attitudes of people about the importance of vaccination.
As we open our schools and we fully embrace the recommendations that we’ve put out about face coverings and masks, social distancing, washing your hands, staying away from crowded situations—these can also have a significant influence on the flu season. So, on the one hand, we could have a very difficult time with COVID and flu at the same time. On the other hand, we may really make a big impact on negating flu when people embrace our COVID mitigation strategies. We’re seeing this in Australia right now, where their flu outbreak is really markedly decreased now because of individuals using the mitigation strategies that we put forward for COVID.
Another reason to get a flu vaccine during COVID? To avoid overwhelming some of our healthcare facilities. Resources may be limited for elderly individuals that have significant COVID infections because we have younger, otherwise healthy people that are getting flu and having to go in the hospital.
Q: What about hesitancy because of COVID to go into a doctor’s office or another place where flu shots are being administered?
Redfield: I think we have to be aggressive and try to counter that. We’re trying to reverse that in partnership with the American Academy of Pediatrics. Globally it’s a big, big deal. We’ve seen measles vaccination rates and the polio eradication program get curtailed. And these are real threats globally—120 million children are at risk to die from measles.
Q: What’s your message for parents of teenagers?
Redfield: I suspect the teenager’s decision to get flu vaccine is substantially influenced by the parent. If I had one message for parents, it’s that flu vaccine is really a very important public health intervention. So I’m really hoping parents will take advantage of the importance of getting flu vaccine this season in particular.
Quick Flu Facts
In the 2018-2019 flu season—the most recent data available—the CDC estimates that:
- 35.5 million people got sick with influenza
- 16.5 million people saw a health care provider for influenza
- 490,600 people were hospitalized for influenza
- 34,200 died from influenza
Can I get a free flu shot?
Most insurers cover flu vaccines at no cost. If not, or if you’re not insured, you may be able to get a free shot through the federal government’s Vaccines for Kids program. For more information, go to