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Will Flu Be A Risk This Fall? Doctors Insist People Should Get The Flu Shot Anyway

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Vaccine manufacturers have increased production of flu shots for this season. And the message from doctors and public health experts say, is get one. And coronavirus continues to circulate widely, killing around 1,000 people a day in the U.S. Experts say a combination of COVID-19 and seasonal flu could be a lethal mix. NPR's Allison Aubrey reports.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: The pharmaceutical company Sanofi Pasteur produced 70 million flu shots last year. This year, they have upped their U.S. production and are shipping about 80 million doses. The company's Elaine O'Hara says demand for the shot should be high given the importance of preventing flu in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. But will people come out to get their flu shots, or will they resist?

ELAINE O'HARA: People are afraid to go and get vaccinated because they don't want to go back into their doctor's offices.

AUBREY: The pandemic has made many people hesitant, so don't be surprised if you get a text or an email offering you a flu shot at a curbside clinic or a drive-through tent. L.J Tan is chief strategy officer at the Immunization Action Coalition. He explains the goal is to make it easy and convince people they need the flu shot.

LJ TAN: One of the biggest challenges is that COVID-19 has a high-risk population. They tend to be over 60. They tend to have chronic heart disease. They can have chronic respiratory illness. And so I think one of our things is that we look at that, and you overlap that against the high-risk populations for flu, they're almost identical.

AUBREY: And the illnesses can start with almost identical symptoms - a fever, aches and chills, fatigue. So imagine, come winter, people who start to experience these symptoms won't know if they have flu or COVID. This could cause a lot of anxiety and perhaps more trips to the emergency room. It's not yet possible to be vaccinated against coronavirus, so Tan says the best way to prevent hospitals from becoming overburdened is to take flu off the table. He says it's true that the flu vaccine is not 100% effective, but it does greatly diminish the chance of severe illness.

TAN: If you get vaccinated and then you catch influenza, the data's clear that you will get a much less serious case of flu.

AUBREY: You're less likely to end up in the hospital and less likely to spread it to others. It's worth noting that there is another way to help prevent both flu and COVID-19. As we've heard so often during the pandemic, social distancing and masking and handwashing are our best defenses. You can't catch flu or COVID if you don't come into contact with others who are infected. There's already some evidence that these distancing measures to slow the spread of COVID may have led to less flu this year in the southern hemisphere, where winter is coming to an end soon. Here's Sanofi Pasteur's Elaine O'Hara.

O'HARA: Other countries have had a lighter flu season. These are initial reports coming from Chile, Brazil, et cetera.

AUBREY: In Australia and Argentina, there are reports that cases of flu dropped off significantly this winter. O'Hara says Australia had a strong campaign to vaccinate against the flu, so that could be part of it, but officials say you can't discount the idea that all the steps people are taking to prevent COVID could pay off for flu prevention, too. Given that adherence to social distancing and masking vary greatly within the U.S., a flu vaccine is key to prevention. And O'Hara says, for people 65 and older, there is a more potent flu shot available.

O'HARA: There is a higher-dose influenza vaccine, which is known as Fluzone High-Dose. It has four times the antigen of a standard vaccine.

AUBREY: This offers more protection for people who are at highest risk of serious complication. Allison Aubrey, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF TEEBS'S "MARCEL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.