The upcoming flu season threatens to add further complication to an already raging pandemic. That’s why French pharmaceutical company Sanofi is working with CVS and other retail pharmacies to create walk-up and drive-through vaccination stations to inoculate people against the flu.
“Two respiratory infections co-circulating is very, very problematic. So having a safe environment for people to get vaccinated is very important,” Elaine O’Hara, head of vaccines for Sanofi North America, said at a press conference on Monday. Sanofi is shipping 80 million flu vaccines to the U.S. With another wave of COVID-19 infections expected to rise this fall, health experts are worried that Americans are at risk of catching both COVID-19 and the flu.
Sanofi’s vaccine leadership says they’ve developed a blueprint for how to bring flu vaccines to the public in a way that feels safe. The document advises that physicians create walk-up or curbside vaccine stations and set up online appointment booking, an easy way to obtain patient immunization records and verify insurance. The company says CVS, Walmart, and Walgreens will be among its partners putting those plans into practice this fall. CVS is incorporating walk-up and outdoor clinics into the offsite vaccination stations it sets up on behalf of corporate clients.
Sanofi’s plans are designed to combat this year’s unique barriers to widespread flu vaccination. Many people get their annual flu vaccine at work, but with many offices working remotely, workers are left to get vaccines from their doctor’s office or a local clinic. People have been wary of the doctor’s office: visits to primary care doctors dropped substantially during the beginning of the outbreak in the U.S. in March and April. While those figures have rebounded, they still sit slightly below pre-pandemic levels, indicating that people may be hesitant to go in for a check-up or to get a vaccine shot, according to data published by the Common Wealth Fund. That data also shows that children’s visits to the doctor have not picked back up the way that adult visits have.
“There’s no point in making 80 million influenza vaccines if [they’re] not going to end up in arms,” O’Hara said.
While the influenza virus is around all year, it affects the most people during what we call flu season, which starts in December and lasts through March, sometimes hanging around as late as May. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggest getting vaccinated as early as September or October. Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, health experts are not currently recommending getting a flu vaccine in August, because it is too far in advance of the flu season and its protective effects may dwindle.
Even with the aid of a vaccine, the flu can have devastating effects on population health. In the 2018 to 2019 flu season, nearly half a million people were hospitalized for the flu, according to CDC estimates. Over the past nine years, the flu has killed between 12,000 and 61,000 people annually. Nearly 170,000 people have died of COVID-19 in the U.S. in 2020.
With flu season around the corner, there’s concern that severe cases of flu may take up hospital beds that might otherwise be allocated for COVID-19 patients. “What we need to do is reduce hospitalizations coming in from influenza,” says Dr Michael Greenberg, Medical Head for Vaccines at Sanofi North America. Greenberg says his company is hoping to keep severe flu cases down by making sure more people get vaccinated this year.
Update: This article has been updated to clarify how CVS is putting outdoor clinics into practice.