The number of children getting flu shots is down from this same time last year, and that could have a big impact on schools that are still struggling from the lingering effects of the coronavirus pandemic.
Thirty-four percent of children ages 6 months through 17 years had been vaccinated against the flu by the end of the first week of November, compared to 40 percent at this same time last year, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
But while the flu was relatively mild last year, likely because of large-scale mask-wearing, social distancing, and remote work and school, this year many of those same COVID-19 mitigation efforts are not in place, or at least not to the same extent, as they were.
A convergence of COVID-19 infections and flu infections—also being referred to as a “twindemic”—could exacerbate issues that are already bedeviling schools: staff shortages and student absences.
Flu vaccines are crucial to keeping students on track academically this year, said Donna Mazyck, the executive director of the National Association of School Nurses.
“We have seen with flu vaccination that there is less absenteeism in schools, and this year more than any other we don’t want to interrupt student learning time,” she said.
“The fact that flu vaccination uptake is less, we have to be clear that this is still an issue that can cause, in some cases, 10 percent of absences in the school building.”
This issue isn’t limited to the flu vaccine. K-12 students are behind on all routine vaccinations compared to before the pandemic, said Mazyck. Children and adolescents fell behind on routine vaccinations as they skipped out on regular doctor’s visits and schools relaxed enforcement of vaccine requirements.
How schools can improve flu vaccine uptake
While flu vaccinations among children and adolescents are down 6 percentage points this year, the gap is even larger among white and Black children.
The reasons flu vaccinations are down for all children this year compared to the previous two are layered and complex, said Mayzck.
“Right now, we’re talking vaccine, vaccine, vaccine around the COVID-19 vaccine, and that can cause a measure of fatigue or even confusion,” she said.
The job for schools, said Mayzck, is to step up the messaging around how important flu vaccinations are.
Schools can also host vaccination clinics in partnership with local health providers to make it easier for families to access the vaccine.
The flu vaccine can be administered at the same time as other childhood immunizations, as well as the COVID-19 vaccine.