Houston Methodist patients recently received an alarming message on their online MyChart inboxes. As of August 1, the healthcare provider told people they were “overdue” for their annual flu shot.
Understandably unnerved by the message’s phrasing — sent in the middle of a bona fide public health crisis that has most rational folks on edge — plenty of patients called in to schedule an appointment to get their flu vaccine as soon as possible.
There was just one problem: Houston Methodist hasn’t received their annual shipment of flu shots yet, and won’t until the end of the month.
“While a message went out saying that our patients were ‘due’ for the vaccine, receiving it any time before flu season is OK,” said Dr. Josh Septimus, an internist at Houston Methodist. Septimus said that Houston Methodist expects to get their first shipment of flu shots on August 31, which is “consistent with our normal annual delivery.”
When Houstonians receive inaccurate “overdue” notices and see messages of “FLU SHOTS NOW AVAILABLE” being trumpeted on CVS Pharmacy signs, it makes sense that they might worry they’re already in trouble if they haven’t yet taken steps to get vaccinated against the flu. However, medical professionals say that there’s still plenty of time to get a flu shot this year.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s latest guidance is that getting a flu vaccine in July or August “is too early, especially for older people, because of the likelihood of reduced protection against flu infection later in the flu season,” and explained that “September and October are good times to get vaccinated.” Septimus agreed. “The best time to get a flu shot is in mid-September to mid-October,” he said.
COVID-19 hasn’t caused the CDC to encourage Americans to get vaccinated earlier than usual. While the group’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices hasn’t voted on the subject yet, the CDC “does not anticipate a major change in the recommendation on timing of the vaccination,” according to a Friday flu update on the agency’s website.
An exception to the CDC’s guidance are children who haven’t received a flu vaccine before. The first round of vaccination for kids requires two shots that have to be given four weeks apart, so the CDC recommends that those children “start the vaccination process sooner” so that the final shot still comes before the start of flu season in October.
“Children who have never been vaccinated previously against influenza, you want them to start now,” said Dr. Pedro Piedra, a flu expert and professor of molecular virology and microbiology at Baylor College of Medicine. Piedra explained that in order to prevent the most illnesses from the flu, he “would really like the population to be vaccinated before Thanksgiving” at the absolute latest.
In most years, the flu season runs from at least October through March according to the CDC. During last year’s season, the CDC estimated between 39 and 56 million Americans were infected, which resulted in 410,000-740,000 hospitalizations and 24,000-62,000 deaths in the United States.
Piedra doesn’t think there’s anything wrong with Houston Methodist’s tactic of telling patients they’re already overdue for their flu shot if it startles people to start thinking seriously about getting vaccinated, especially considering how so many people opt not to get flu shots every year. CDC data shows that out of all Americans eligible for a flu shot — anyone over six months of age — more than half don’t get their flu vaccine annually.
On Thursday, Gov. Greg Abbott implored all Texans to get their flu shots this year in order to prevent state hospitals from becoming “completely overrun” due to the combined burdens of COVID-19 and flu hospitalizations. After a roundtable discussion with flu experts at UT Southwestern in Dallas, Abbott said that “the time period for getting a flu vaccine begins as early as in September.”
That guidance falls in line with what the Texas Department of State Health Services has told the Harris Health System, the Harris County government entity that manages Ben Taub General Hospital, Lyndon Baines General Hospital and numerous community health centers throughout the county. Harris Health spokesperson John Martinez told the Houston Press that Harris Health has been instructed by the state to start their flu vaccination campaign by September 15.
Other Houston area healthcare providers said they expect their flu shot allotments to arrive between late August and September. According to a prepared statement from St. Luke’s Health spokesperson Vanessa Astros, St. Luke’s hospitals expect their flu vaccines “to arrive in late September.” Dr. Melanie Mouzoon, Managing Physician of Immunization Practices for Kelsey-Sebold, said their vaccines will be “coming in starting in late August and early September.” Memorial Hermann plans to have flu shots on hand starting “in late August into early September,” said spokesperson Jade Waddy.
While there’s no need to panic right now, Piedra urged Houstonians to commit to doing the responsible thing by getting a flu shot before the start of flu season this year.
“The main message is that people be vaccinated. Period,” he said.