Some Thanksgiving travelers heading to high-flu states

SUDBURY -- Ten days until Thanksgiving and the flu vaccination business is brisk at Sudbury Pharmacy.

“The volume has been about a dozen to twenty a day in our small pharmacy,” said Pharmacist Rita Naoum, PharmD.

Among those signing up for a shot today: Richard Rader of Framingham.

“I do it every year,” he said. “I don’t even think about it, I just do it.”

And that strategy seems to be working: Rader has never had the flu. “I don’t see why people don’t do it,” he said. “It’s easy to do.”

Numbers from the state Department of Public Health suggest many in Massachusetts aren’t doing it. The influenza vaccination rate as of last week hovered just below 30 percent -- though that was a 13 percent increase over the week before. But in that same time frame, influenza cases in Massachusetts shot up 20 percent to a confirmed 573. And if what’s happening in the rest of the country is any indication, the increase won’t stop there.

“They actually had to add a new color because there was so much flu in the South right now,” said Sabrina Assoumou, MD, MPH, an infectious disease physician at Boston Medical Center.

Assoumou is referring to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Flu Tracker map. As of last week, it showed seven states in the South -- Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, Tennessee, Alabama and Mississippi -- along with the District of Columbia -- shaded in purple, to indicate the very highest levels of flu activity.

The CDC reports an additional fifteen states are experiencing at least high influenza activity.

Assoumou said it appears the flu pattern that emerged in the Southern Hemisphere this year is duplicating here.

“They actually had an early flu season and actually a lot of cases,” she said. “So that’s why we started sounding the alarm a little early. So people know this may be a pretty heavy flu season and to get vaccinated as soon as possible. Unfortunately that is what we’re seeing in the South right now.”

The influenza wave couldn’t come at a worse time. Next week, millions of Americans will hit the road for Thanksgiving -- with a fair number of them traveling through major hub airports located in high-flu states -- such as Atlanta, Newark, Washington, D.C. and Dallas. And national statistics suggest many will be unvaccinated against the flu. As of late October, the CDC reported only about 1/5 of Americans had gotten flu shots.

That has healthcare workers -- already dealing with RSV and Covid-19 -- concerned.

“From the data that I’ve seen, the vaccination is approximately fifty percent effective against hospitalization,” Assoumou said. “This is actually a relatively good flu vaccine. What it does is prevent you from getting hospitalized and that is what we worry about.”

Assoumou said it’s hard to predict if an early start to flu season will mean an early end. She suggests not counting on that.

“The message is we actually have a vaccine. We’re not helpless,” she said. “So please get vaccinated as soon as possible.”

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