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Florida's recent low flu vaccination rates raise concerns

 According to the CDC, just under 42 percent of Florida’s population ages six months and older received a vaccine last flu season — the lowest level in the country.
Stephanie Colombini
WUSF Public Media
According to the CDC, just under 42 percent of Florida’s population ages six months and older received a vaccine last flu season — the lowest level in the country.

Flu season is here and cases are on the rise in Florida.

With the holiday season upon us, concerns grow about the state’s flu vaccination rate and the unwillingness of some to get a shot.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 41.7% of Florida’s population ages 6 months and older received a vaccine during the 2020-21 flu season — the most recent data available on a statewide basis.

That’s the lowest rate nationwide, followed by Mississippi at 42.1% and Wyoming at 42.6%.

That figure, according to University of South Florida College of Public Health professor Dr. Marissa Levine, can be attributed to the climate, as well as younger people’s hesitancy to get the jab.

“There's a sense that flu isn't an issue for them. And I would just say that that may be true for a lot of people, but people younger than 65 still get hospitalized and can die from the flu, including children,” Levine said.

With Florida being a popular destination for tourists, Levine said the influx of people in and out of the state could contribute to the spread of influenza, here and elsewhere.

“I think Florida would be at greater risk if the vaccine levels don't get higher because [it is] open for business and people come here for the warmer weather. We also could be a place where you can not only bring the flu in, but you could pick it up and take it back with you. So, it could play a role there too,” Levine said.

“At the end of the day, good vaccination rates are important not just for the individual, but for the whole community.”

Coverage across the Tampa Bay region last flu season was even lower than the state number. The CDC estimated flu vaccination rates of 34.4% in Polk County, 36.3% in Hernando County, 38.2% in Hillsborough and Manatee counties, 39.9% in Sarasota County, and 40.6% in Pinellas County.

According to Levine, misinformation also plays a role in the state’s low vaccination rate — something that has extended to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We've seen plenty of misinformation about COVID and [its] vaccine, and the reality is that the vaccine has been a blessing and it's saved lives and continues to save lives,” Levine said. “But there is an upswell of misinformation about vaccines in general [and it] could spill over to things like flu vaccination and even childhood vaccines.”

“I think it's really important to really reflect and realize that vaccines are an important game-changer in a positive way. And we shouldn't in any way minimize their impact and their importance. And make sure that you learn, get the information you need, go to reputable sources and ask questions.”

While the number of influenza cases has been low over the past month, the Florida Department of Health said that figure is on the rise.

Last week, the state reported 33 counties with increasing influenza activity, 30 reported activity at a plateau, and three had a decreasing number of cases.

This year’s flu season also raises concern among health professionals nationwide as it comes alongside the arrival of the omicron variant of the coronavirus, which has higher rates of transmission and reinfection.

The first U.S. omicron case was reported in California on Wednesday, two weeks after the variant was detected in the Netherlands and South Africa. The spread prompted President Joe Biden to announce a new pandemic strategy Thursday afternoon to slow down the spread.

“Last year, as flu season was approaching, we were very concerned about what would happen if we had COVID and flu. And we didn't, fortunately, but that doesn't mean that it couldn't happen this year,” Levine said. “It's a very bad combination, kind of the perfect storm of infectious diseases.

“Vaccination is our best bet against flu, just like with COVID, and I hope that people are taking advantage of the opportunity to get vaccinated for both.”

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Leda Alvim