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Preparing for the 2021-2022 Flu Season

Although flu season generally runs from October through April, as noted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), preparation is a year-round activity. The typical preparation providers and medical practices perform is routine and doesn’t vary much from year to year — except in 2020.

The COVID-19 pandemic added an unexpected complexity that upended typical flu season preparations but also provided lessons for dealing with unusual public health circumstances. While we cannot predict what 2021 will bring, by examining the current flu season, providers and practices can adopt a few principles to better prepare for and adapt to future flu seasons. 

Prepare for the unexpected

Typically, providers begin preparing for the start of flu season at the top of the year between January and March, when pre-booking begins. Providers pre-book and reserve their vaccine supply based on population needs, taking into account age mix, allergies, and even anticipated growth inpatient roster.

But in 2020, these factors were nearly impossible for providers to predict with patients under stay-at-home orders decreasing visits to outpatient and primary care centers. While in-person visits were dwindling, CDC Director Robert Redfield was already warning of a fall “twindemic” with the flu and COVID-19, leaving providers ready for pre-booking wading between overpreparing and under-preparing for the 2020-2021 flu season.

Fortunately, flu activity has remained exceptionally low this season, as reported in the CDC’s weekly “FluView.” Health experts at Hartford Healthcare suggest that COVID-19 precautions, such as social distancing, face coverings, and less in-person activity, have helped curb the spread of flu. Yet, one aspect that has not changed is patients’ need to be immunized against influenza. By preparing far in advance of the next flu season, providers can ensure they have the necessary supplies and resources for their patients, no matter what disruptions occur.

Patient demand for the flu vaccine can change

The health risks associated with novel coronavirus led healthcare professionals to begin calls for all patients to get flu vaccinations as early as August. This resulted in higher demand for the flu vaccine in advance of flu season, from both providers and patients, and altered the number of vaccines manufacturers had initially planned and produced.

The CDC reports that the U.S. has distributed its highest number of flu vaccine doses ever recorded—192.3 million. Additionally, by the end of December, the CDC estimated that 53-54% of adults received a flu vaccine—coverage already higher than last flu season’s total coverage of 48%. Though it was hard to predict, the pandemic increased demand, and providers who planned ahead were in a better position to serve their patients and the public’s needs.   

Reconsider when and how to administer the flu vaccine

Generally, the CDC recommends patients receive the flu vaccine by the end of October to provide optimal protection and ongoing immunity. This past year, with concerns over a “twindemic”, many patients heeded the suggestions to begin receiving flu vaccinations in late August and September. While traditional timelines and administration practices remain ideal, flexible alternatives, such as drive-thru vaccination clinics or administering the vaccine as a complement to other care appointments, can help to ensure higher flu vaccine uptake.

Though it’s impossible to know what life will look like in fall 2021, there are steps providers can take now to ensure their practice is prepared and properly stocked with the flu vaccine for the 2021-2022 season. One of the best ways to prepare, particularly with increased demand for flu vaccines, is by placing advance orders between January and March. The challenges and lessons learned from the past flu season will help providers continue to adapt and provide patients with the best care and protection against the flu.

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