If flu vaccination rates are any predictor, not nearly enough Kentuckians will get the COVID-19 vaccine to achieve herd immunity.
Herd immunity happens when a virus can't spread because it keeps encountering people who are protected against the infection.
According to CDC data, Kentucky’s flu vaccination rates among counties ranged from 19 to 53 percent last year. The statewide average, historically, is around 40 percent. Dr. Dale Toney, president of the Kentucky Medical Association, says he hope that’s not a harbinger for COVID-19 immunizations.
“Sixty to 70 percent is what’s estimated to achieve herd immunity for the COVID infection," said Toney in an interview with WKU Public Radio.
A study released by The Commonwealth Fund last week found adult vaccination rates for seasonal influenza in 2019 and for the H1N1 flu pandemic of 2009–2010 fell well below the 70 percent threshold.
Vaccination gaps are even greater among minority populations that have been disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. The report suggests stronger federal support and public awareness campaigns as the initial doses of the coronavirus vaccine begin arriving in Kentucky as early as next week.
Toney says one of the state’s challenges will be convincing the public the vaccine is safe. He says the COVID-19 vaccine was created in ten months, whereas some vaccines can take decades to hit the market.
“I think that can scare people, so I think we have to build trust and educate the public," he suggested. "Maybe if trusted public figures get the shots, leaders in the community, leaders of color, that will help. Education, collaboration, that will be the key, I think.”
Kentucky currently has an educational campaign called Raise Your Guard. The campaign by The Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky, Kentucky Medical Association, and Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield highlight the importance of receiving a flu shot, particularly amid the current COVID-19 pandemic.
"It's probably even more important to get it this year because of all the COVID-19 infections," said Dr. Toney. "If people get the flu, they may have to be hospitalized and use up medical resources, and we really need all of that available for our COVID-19 patients."
Last year, more than 27,408 cases of flu were reported in Kentucky, which resulted in 162 deaths. That compares to the 202,592 total cases of COVID-19 as of Monday, and more than 2,000 deaths.