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As flu, RSV spike in Orlando, health care stats show people skipping vaccines

Orlando Sentinel - 11/29/2023

Cold and flu season has officially arrived in Orlando, and it looks like it’s going to be a big one.

So big that already Orange County is in the middle of a flu outbreak, one of four counties with that distinction across the state, according to Florida Department of Health data. In recent weeks, a growing surge of people sick with the flu flooded emergency departments and urgent care centers across Central Florida and the state. Flu test positivity rates surpassed 20%, with more than 15,000 cases in the state during the week of Nov. 12, the most recent data available.

The question is: Will we be prepared? Health professionals say they are ready with ample shots but worry about awareness and vaccine fatigue.

Respiratory syncytial virus, commonly known as RSV, also appears to be spiking locally, with a 30% increase seen at local AdventHealth urgent care centers compared to this time last year, according to AdventHealth’s data.

COVID-19 emergency visits and hospitalization rates are increasing nationwide but remain low statewide, according to Nov. 27Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data, though the CDC still recommends vaccination with the latest COVID-19 booster.

In the season of respiratory illnesses, Florida’s vaccination rates lag behind the rest of the nation.

Only 12.4% of Floridians are up-to-date on their COVID-19 vaccines, according to the most recent CDC data.

About 1 out of 3 Florida adults has taken the flu vaccine and only 24% of Florida kids ages 6 months to 17 years have gotten a flu shot this year, according to CDC data, less than this time during recent years.

The rate is also below the nationwide childhood influenza vaccination rate of 33%, despite the flu vaccine being offered for free through most health insurance and government assistance programs.

The trend troubles health care professionals.

Vaccination is crucial because disease spread is going to get worse before it gets better, especially considering the recent Thanksgiving holiday and holidays still to come, said Dr. Tim Hendrix, medical director for AdventHealth Centra Care, the health system’s chain of urgent care centers.

Flu season in Florida typically peaks in January or February and runs through March.

“We’ve got several weeks of influenza ahead of us,” Hendrix said. “We’re definitely into peak flu season at this point.”

In 2021, 2,845 people in Florida died of flu and pneumonia, according to the CDC, and 2021 was a milder season than this one is shaping up to be.

Another threat, RSV, though common and generally mild, can be dangerous and even life-threatening for very young children and older adults. Central Florida’s peak RSV season lasts longer than most regions, typically going from August to March.

This year, for the first time, RSV vaccines Arexvy and Abrysvo are available nationwide for adults 60 and older. There’s also a monoclonal antibody available, nirsevimab.

But few adults have taken advantage. Nationwide, only 14.3% of eligible adults 60 years or older have gotten their RSV vaccines, according to CDC data.

This may be in part because at first, insurance companies were reluctant to cover the vaccine’s cost, said Maxine Wilkerson, who manages a local CVS pharmacy.

Now that more insurance companies are footing the bill, the biggest problem is low awareness that this vaccine exists, Wilkerson said.

“Not everyone has been informed that it’s out there. I think flu and COVID have gotten so much attention, but not everyone knows about RSV,” she said.

She recommends people come in as soon as possible for their COVID-19, flu and RSV vaccines. CVS and other major pharmacies offer all of them. Multiple vaccines can be safely administered on the same day.

“It’s best that you get your shot sooner rather than later, but some protection is better than none at all,” she said.

Ccatherman@orlandosentinel.com; @CECatherman Twitter

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