Dear Friends and Colleagues:
Influenza is one of the leading causes of morbidity and mortality in the United States. During the 2018-2019 season, the most recent season for which data is available, influenza was estimated to cause 34,200 deaths and 490,600 hospitalizations across the country. In New York, more than 22,000 New Yorkers were hospitalized with laboratory-confirmed influenza during the past flu season.
It is recommended that all New Yorkers age 6 months and older receive an annual influenza vaccine, unless they have a contraindication to the vaccine. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 2018-2019 saw the highest U.S. vaccination rates on record, yet only 45.3 percent of adults and 62.6 percent of children received the influenza vaccine. The NYS Department of Health has directed its public health partners in local health departments to develop and implement robust influenza vaccination plans to increase vaccination rates in communities throughout the State. September and October are ideal months to receive the influenza vaccine to promote protection through peak activity. However, because influenza season can last beyond winter, it is important to keep urging unvaccinated individuals to get vaccinated throughout the spring.
People with intellectual and developmental disabilities have a high prevalence of health conditions which place them at particularly high risk of complications due to COVID. With the approach of cold weather, the reopening of day programs, the loosening of restrictions on community visits, and other efforts to increase community integration, it is more important than ever for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities and their staff to be immunized against influenza. While influenza vaccination does not protect against COVID it may help our State respond to the COVID pandemic in important ways:
- Flu vaccine may keep people with disabilities out of health care facilities where they could be at risk of infection with COVID;
- Flu vaccine reduces unnecessary healthcare visits and hospitalizations;
- High rates of flu vaccination may reduce the risk of flu to those who are not vaccinated through a process called herd immunity. This includes individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities and their staff.
This last point is particularly important as we fight against COVID. Preventing infection with influenza can improve the effectiveness of our developmental disabilities system and reduce the burden placed on our providers. At the present time, we recommend that individuals, staff, and visitors be screened for respiratory symptoms and fever prior to having contact with the individuals we serve. If signs or symptoms of a respiratory illness are present, provider agencies must restrict access through quarantine, isolation or other containment efforts. Our initial screenings cannot distinguish between infection with COVID and infection with influenza. As a result, we can reduce unnecessary restrictions by minimizing the rate of infection with influenza.
We can all contribute to this effort by becoming immunized ourselves and ensuring that our individuals and their staff are immunized. Let’s all do what we can to achieve the goal of 100% influenza vaccination rates in support of our individuals and their staff.
Theodore Kastner, MD MS