Each year the flu sends hundreds of thousands of American adults to the hospital, and a new report finds that people of color are much more likely than whites to make those visits.
Between 2009 and 2022, hospitalization rates were nearly 80 percent higher among Black adults than white adults, a study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found. And rates were 30 percent higher among American Indian/Alaska Native adults and 20 percent higher Hispanics, compared to their white counterparts.
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The findings, published Oct. 18, come ahead of what some experts are predicting could be a particularly bad year for the flu. After two relatively tame years, thanks in large part to pandemic precautions that helped to cut down on the spread of respiratory illnesses, including influenza, “we might be ripe for a severe season,” Carla Black, a CDC epidemiologist, said during a briefing with reporters.
Flu vaccinations lag, while inequities persist
Health experts say one of the best ways to avoid winding up in the hospital with the flu is to get the annual flu shot. It may not safeguard against any infection, but it can make symptoms less severe if you do catch the bug.
Still, only about half of adults in the U.S. typically roll up their sleeves for the shot, CDC data shows. And flu vaccination coverage has been consistently lower among Black, Hispanic and American Indian/Alaska Native adults in the last several years. Fewer than 43 percent of adults in these groups got the flu shot during the 2021–2022 flu season, compared to 54 percent of white adults.
Explanations for these inequities run the gamut, the report’s authors note. Lack of health insurance and vaccine misinformation play a role — two factors that have also had damaging effects during the COVID-19 pandemic. And “lack of access to culturally competent providers and negative experiences with the health care system are still barriers for many people from certain racial and ethnic minority groups,” Black said.
Even those who have access to health care may be slipping through the cracks. Among adults who reported a recent medical checkup, vaccination coverage was still lower for racial and ethnic minorities than for white adults, Black said. “This suggests that health care providers are missing opportunities during routine medical appointments to vaccinate people from certain groups,” she added.
What’s more, the CDC notes that racism and prejudice are also known to worsen inequalities. “Improving access to and trust in flu vaccines among people is critical to help reduce inequities,” CDC Acting Principal Deputy Director Debra Houry, M.D., said.
Lower vaccination rates may be contributing to the disparities seen in hospitalization rates, the CDC says. It’s likely chronic diseases, some of which are more common in certain minority populations, also play a role. Conditions like asthma, diabetes and obesity can increase the risk for serious flu complications and hospitalization.
Now is the time to get the flu shot
If you haven’t had your flu shot yet, now is the time to get it, since flu activity typically starts to pick up in October. (The CDC has already noted an early uptick in flu cases, with the Southeast and South Central areas of the country reporting the highest levels.)
“It takes about two weeks after you get your vaccine for your body’s immune system to mount a good antibody response. You need to factor that time into it as well,” Nipunie Rajapakse, M.D., a pediatric infectious diseases physician at the Mayo Clinic Children’s Center, explained in a news release.
Everyone 6 months and older is encouraged to get the vaccine. And this year, health officials are urging all adults 65 and older to get what’s known as a high-dose version of the flu shot (there are three different options to choose from).
Older adults are among those at highest risk for complications from the flu and account for the majority of flu-related hospitalizations and deaths. The CDC estimates that the flu was responsible for between 140,000 to 710,000 hospitalizations and 12,000 to 52,000 deaths annually between 2010 and 2020.
“Vaccination is the best defense we have against the worst outcomes of getting the flu,” the CDC’s Houry said.
Rachel Nania writes about health care and health policy for AARP. Previously she was a reporter and editor for WTOP Radio in Washington, D.C. A recipient of a Gracie Award and a regional Edward R. Murrow Award, she also participated in a dementia fellowship with the National Press Foundation.