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An alarming decrease in vaccinations statewide has primary care physicians and public health leaders fearing the worst about the health threat on its way to Michigan this fall and winter: influenza.
Members of the Michigan Academy of Family Physicians spoke Monday during an online roundtable with the media about common influenza misperceptions and urged vaccination for babies, toddlers, teens, adults and the elderly.
“As flu season approaches, vaccine fatigue remains strong and we need to remember that flu can be fatal for all ages,” said Dr. Beena Nagappala, president, Michigan Academy of Family Physicians and medical director of community health at Ascension Southeast Michigan.
Flu season started severely last year, with an early hospitalization peak in October 2022, and a season high in cases in December, officials said.
“Influenza is not the stomach flu and it’s also different than the common cold. It’s a respiratory illness and which is what makes it so dangerous,” said Nagappala who is already seeing cases of flu in her practice.
Doctors from the roundtable said survey data from 2023 shows that people’s intent to become vaccinated against the flu is low overall. The state’s goal this flu season is 4 million people vaccinated. Last year only 3 million got their shot.
“This means only a third of our state was vaccinated,” Nagappala said. “The best plan for avoiding flu is to have your family vaccinated now.”
Getting vaccinated is critical, health officials said, because flu, COVID-19 and RSV frequently spread at the same time of year.
Dr. Vincent Winkler-Prins, owner and operator of Table Health-Petoskey Family Practice, which serves a rural population and people who lack access to affordable care in northern Michigan, said on Monday that vaccine rates are 19% points lower for rural children compared to those in urban areas.
“The downward trend began when, due to COVID, people weren’t able to visit their primary care physician for in-person appointments and things like immunizations,” Winkler-Prins said. “But now we can connect in person again and the time is overdue.”
Dr. Nirali Bora, medical director of the Kent County Health Department, said a common question from the public is when to get the flu vaccine. Mid-November to December is when the flu is expected to peak, officials said, in Michigan.
“Everyone should be vaccinated by the end of October,” Bora said.
Asked about the predicted severity of the flu, some physicians on the roundtable said they could not say for sure, but Winkler-Prins said fears are based the number of under-immunized people.
“People are very worried what while we don’t know yet the severity of the current strains, we do worry that we have a larger population at risk and so ultimately the effects could be very significant,” Winkler-Prins said.
The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services is recommending residents get the flu, COVID-19 and RSV vaccines to protect themselves and their communities against respiratory viruses this upcoming season.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention expects 2023-24 to be similar to 2022-23 in terms of total number of hospitalizations from seasonal respiratory illnesses.
During the 2022-23 flu season, the nation recorded 27 to 54 million estimated cases of flu, 12 to 26 million flu medical visits and 19,000 to 58,000 estimated deaths from the flu.
Officials said despite its comparison to the common cold, the flu can be a serious and potentially deadly, especially for children, older adults and people with chronic health conditions, which is why vaccination remains a critical strategy for prevention.
Vaccination rates among Michigan toddlers are at their lowest level since 2010, with some dropping over 7 percentage points since the COVID-19 pandemic began alone, and experts fear the decrease could lead to a resurgence of preventable diseases.
Public health officials have said the trend among 19-month to 36-month-old children in Michigan, detailed in data from the State Care Improvement Registry, is cause for concern and could fuel an uptick of conditions such as measles, mumps and even polio that may spread beyond the state’s youngest population.