This flu season could be a bad one, and Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price got his flu shot Thursday and urged Americans to follow his example and get vaccinated.
But after getting jabbed, Price, who is under fire for his flights on government-funded private jets, left before a scheduled question-and-answer session at the National Press Club. He rolled down his sleeve and hurried out of the room before putting his suit jacket back on.
Reporters followed him out, shouting questions.
“We’re going to work through this, and I think we’ve still got the confidence of the president,” he told reporters. He declined to comment about whether his taxpayer-funded use of charter jets was appropriate. He said he is waiting for the outcome of an HHS inspector general review.
President Trump voiced his displeasure Wednesday about Price’s trips and appeared to suggest that he would consider firing him. Price has been criticized for using public money to pay for private flights more than two dozen times, according to Politico, including personal travel for business trips.
In his remarks at the annual flu awareness event, Price noted that vaccination coverage has plateaued, and that fewer than half of the U.S. population was vaccinated last season. Even though overall vaccination coverage ticked up slightly last season, the flu hospitalization rate was nearly double that of the previous season and higher across all age groups than seven of the eight previous eight seasons.
Just a 5 percent increase in vaccination coverage could have prevented nearly half a million illnesses last season, he said.
“We’ve got a lot of room for improvement,” Price said.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that everyone 6 months and older get an injectable flu vaccine before the end of October, if possible. It takes about two weeks for the body to produce a full immune response.
Price, who has not always given the most full-throated public defense of vaccines, hailed them as one of the greatest inventions of modern times. But they’re only useful if society takes advantage of them, he said.
Next year is the 100th anniversary of the world influenza pandemic known as the Spanish flu. That disease outbreak infected one-third of the world’s population and killed at least 50 million people, including 675,000 Americans, he said. An influenza pandemic poses one of the world’s greatest infectious disease challenges, he said.
Preparing for annual flu is the foundation to protect against pandemic flu, he said.
Experts say the upcoming flu season could be severe, based on surveillance of flu in the Southern Hemisphere, often a clue for what to expect in the United States. More than 2.5 times the number of laboratory confirmed notifications of influenza have been reported this year, compared with the same period last year.
Flu virus infections began increasing earlier than usual in Australia and hit historic highs in some states, according to government data. The most troubling news is that influenza A(H3N2) viruses were most common in Australia. Seasons where H3N2 is dominant typically result in the most complications, especially for the very young and the old, experts say. Vaccines are less effective against H3N2, which causes more severe disease than most other strains.
“It’s the fiercest one,” said William Schaffner, an infectious-diseases expert at Vanderbilt University and medical director of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases, which sponsors the annual event.
U.S. experts say it’s too soon to know what this means for the upcoming U.S. season. Over the summer in the United States, similar H3N2 viruses have been the most common flu viruses to circulate at low levels. That could suggest another H3N2 season, or it may not.
Each season new flu vaccines are designed based on detailed characterization of the flu viruses circulating in the previous season. Influenza viruses that are transmitted between humans mutate easily as they pass from person to person. This season’s vaccines include protection against the H3N2 virus.
Officials said they don’t really know why vaccination coverage has remained stagnant. Shaffner said health-care providers need to be more forceful. The vaccine is not perfect, and its effectiveness typically hovers between 40 percent and 60 percent. But those rates measure only complete protection, he said. It doesn’t take into account partial protection that the vaccine offers for “those who didn’t have to go to the hospital and who didn’t die from influenza,” he said.
Flu shots are particularly important for those older than 65, he said. Even if older people recover from a bout of flu, “they may not be as strong as they were before,” he said.
Vaccination coverage has also lagged among those working in health care, particularly in long-term care facilities.
Patsy Stinchfield, senior director of infection control and prevention at Children’s Minnesota, said her institution tries to make vaccinations as accessible as possible. Sometimes, health-care professionals have a fear of needles, just like in the general population.
“Remember to breathe through your mouth, let your arm hang like a piece of spaghetti, and take yourself to your favorite place in the whole wide world,” she suggested. The shot will be over before you know it, she said.
For the upcoming flu season, manufacturers have estimated that up to 163 million doses of injectable flu vaccine will be available in the United States. More than 73 million doses of vaccine already have been delivered. This season’s vaccines have been updated and are designed to protect against the viruses that research suggests will be most common during the 2017-2018 season, including the H3N2 virus.