Tasha Polster, BSPharm, vice president, pharmacy quality compliance and patient safety, Walgreens, discusses misconceptions that often keep patients from getting a flu shot, and what age group is often less knowledgeable about the flu and the corresponding vaccine. At Walgreens, she oversees the Retail Pharmacy Immunization program, Pharmacovigilance group, and patient safety.
Can you briefly discuss misconceptions that often keep patients from getting a flu shot—especially during the pandemic?
Yes, in fact, Walgreens recently conducted a consumer survey with Harris Poll revealing that 30% of Americans believe the flu shot can give them the flu, and 18% are not at all sure. This is a common misconception that continues to prevail year after year and may discourage some from getting the flu shot, however, the vaccine is manufactured using what’s known as a dead or inactive virus and cannot cause anyone to get influenza as a result of receiving the vaccine.
Another major misconception is that getting vaccinated against the flu isn’t necessary because the flu shot is not 100% effective. For example, if the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says a flu vaccine is 40% to 50% effective, that means of the people who receive the flu shot, 40% to 50% of those who are then exposed to the flu will experience no symptoms. The rest may still experience mild or reduced symptoms, but they reduce their risk of far more severe symptoms and being hospitalized.
Getting a flu shot this season is even more important amidst the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic to help reduce the overall burden of respiratory illnesses on the health care system.
Some consumers may think that the flu shot can increase the risk of getting COVID-19, but there is no evidence that getting the flu shot increases the risk of becoming infected with COVID-19, according to the CDC.
Our pharmacy team members are an important health resource in the communities they serve and available to answer patient questions by phone or the pharmacy chat option available on Walgreens.com and on the Walgreens app.
Walgreens recently conducted a survey regarding this year’s flu vaccine. Can you talk about the findings? Were any of them particularly surprising?
We conducted a survey online in August with The Harris Poll, which showed consumer sentiments around flu shots and flu season amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. One takeaway was that COVID-19 has driven greater urgency to get a flu shot this season, with 72% of US adults saying they will probably or definitely get the flu shot this year. People are doing everything they can to proactively protect the health of themselves and those around them during the pandemic and are adding flu shots to their lines of defense among social distancing, wearing face masks and frequent hand washing.
Further, 32% of all US adults say they are more likely to get a flu shot this year than in previous years—52% are doing so specifically because of COVID-19. Of those who are now more likely to get a flu shot this year, 61% want to do everything they can to stay healthy during the pandemic. This aligns with demand we’re seeing for flu shots in our pharmacies, as we have administered 60% more flu shots this year compared to the same time last year.
What age population is often less knowledgeable about the flu? Why do you think there are so many doubts or misconceptions surrounding the flu vaccine and how can pharmacists help address this?
In the survey, we asked people about common flu misconceptions and instructed respondents to share if they believed statements about the flu—like “the flu vaccine can give me the flu” or “if I get a flu shot, I will get the flu anyways.” We found that younger adults are more likely than older adults to believe certain flu myths to be true—out of 11 flu facts, younger adults (aged 18-34) typically answered six statements correctly vs older adults aged 65 years and older who answered nine statements correctly. While those who are young and healthy may not think they need to get a flu shot, doing so can help protect not only themselves, but those around them who may be at greater risk like seniors or those who are immunocompromised.
Typically, underserved and low-income populations have less access to flu vaccines. This season we are building on our immunizations outreach program to host off-site clinics in local community centers and churches to better reach these communities. We are also engaging these same organizations and trusted leaders to educate communities on why the flu shot is particularly important this season and dispel common myths.
As highly accessible providers of care in the communities they serve, our pharmacists are available to answer patient questions on the flu vaccine by phone or the pharmacy chat option available on Walgreens.com and on the Walgreens app.
What tips do you have for pharmacists as we enter flu season? How can they continually help other health care providers encourage patients?
Patients see their local pharmacist far more than their primary care provider, so our pharmacists are able to serve as an important source of health information locally and reduce misinformation about flu vaccines. With fewer patients going into doctor’s offices right now, our pharmacists can help make sure that patients are continuing to adhere to their medications and receive routine immunizations. Our pharmacy team members can also help reinforce the safety measures and precautions we’ve taken to administer immunizations, and things that patients can do to reduce their time in the pharmacy, including completing paperwork in advance and bringing it with them or using our online scheduler to make an appointment.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
Walgreens recently changed its policy to allow pharmacy team members to administer flu vaccines to children aged 3 years and up in most states to help protect more families against the flu. Kids younger than 5 years are the most vulnerable to serious flu-related complications such as hospitalization, pneumonia, dehydration or in worse cases—death. Because they are more at risk, the CDC recommends the flu shot for children aged 6 months and older.