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CDC underscores the importance of Black and Hispanic adults getting flu shots

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

It is flu season in the U.S., and a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention underscores how important it is to get your flu shot. And that's especially true for Black and Hispanic adults, who are more likely to be hospitalized with the flu than white adults. It is a gap that could be closed with higher vaccination rates. And here to discuss those CDC findings is NPR health reporter Pien Huang.

Let's start with this new report. What does it show?

PIEN HUANG, BYLINE: Well, the report shows significant ethnic and racial disparities during flu season. It's a big retrospective study done by the CDC on almost every flu season all the way back to 2009. And the major findings, as you mentioned, are that Black adults are almost twice as likely to get hospitalized from flu as white or Asian adults. We also see disparities in hospitalizations among Hispanic and Native American, Native Alaskan people, although it's not quite as high as with Black adults. And at the same time, Black, Hispanic and Native populations get the flu vaccine at lower rates - around 40% - while the national average is around 50%. Now, vaccines aren't the only reason that some groups of color are getting hit harder by flu. But CDC officials say that boosting flu vaccination rates in these groups could do a lot.

MARTINEZ: Than what stands in the way of these higher vaccination rates for people of color?

HUANG: Well, it's a bunch of different factors. And at a press briefing yesterday, Karla Black, a CDC official, said there can be a lot of different barriers.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KARLA BLACK: Including lack of access to health care and insurance, missed opportunities to vaccinate and misinformation and distrust. Racism and prejudice also contribute to these inequities.

HUANG: It's not just that people don't want to get it or don't make it to a doctor. There's research that shows that even when people of color show up to get a vaccine, the options they're getting can be inferior. For instance, there's this high-dose vaccine that should be available to people who are older 'cause they're more vulnerable to flu. But a study of Medicare patients showed that among people who are 65 and older who got a flu vaccine, people of color were 20- to 30% less likely to actually get that higher dose.

MARTINEZ: You know, this sounds exactly as - like we were talking about with COVID vaccines, racial and ethnic disparities during the rollout of those shots. I mean, is that a fair comparison?

HUANG: Yeah, A, it totally is. I mean, at the start of the COVID vaccine rollout, Black and Latino vaccination rates lagged behind those of white Americans. But then with a lot of investment and effort, those gaps were closed. And that actually ends up being a real pandemic success story.

Now, the CDC says that there are lessons learned there that can be applied here, lessons like bringing vaccines into the community, into libraries, grocery stores, schools. It helps to make them convenient and free. And it also helps to reach out to communities with messages that make sense to them in the languages that they speak.

I spoke with John Pamplin. He's a social epidemiologist who studies structural racism at Columbia University. And he says that these are some good short-term solutions. But in the long term, Pamplin says, doctors and health leaders need to actually be coming from the communities that have been hardest to reach with the flu shot.

JOHN PAMPLIN: If we have a diverse workforce that is comprised of individuals who are already trusted members of these communities, then it's much easier for them to be able to kind of communicate and speak to people where they're at.

MARTINEZ: All right. So what should we expect flu season to look like this year?

HUANG: Well, flu season is already starting, and activity is currently low - flu activity. But it's increasing in a lot of the country, especially in the South and Southeast. And while the past two flu seasons have been super mild, experts warn that it could be bad this year. People are back to school and work. They're traveling. They're not masking or social distancing anymore. And since most people haven't really had flu in two years, natural immunity is down. So we might be back to a typical flu season where millions of people get sick and hundreds of thousands of people will get hospitalized.

MARTINEZ: That's NPR's Pien Huang. Thanks a lot.

HUANG: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

A Martínez
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Pien Huang is a health reporter on the Science desk. She was NPR's first Reflect America Fellow, working with shows, desks and podcasts to bring more diverse voices to air and online.