Blog: During the COVID-19 Pandemic, It Is More Important Than Ever for Older Adults to Stay Current on Recommended Vaccinations

William Schaffner, MD

William Schaffner, MD, medical director of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases, explains the importance of keeping up with recommended vaccinations, even during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted our health and well-being beyond the damage caused by the virus. In every community, older adults have been sheltering in place, and many have not left their homes for routine medical care in several months. Unfortunately, it’s impossible to get vaccinated from the comfort of your own couch. As a result, we have seen a troubling drop in routine immunization rates across the United States. We must reverse this trend now; otherwise, we could see outbreaks of dreaded vaccine-preventable diseases across the country, which would be a disaster during a pandemic, particularly for older adults.

Immune systems decline with age. Adults age 65 years and older are at higher risk of serious complications from vaccine-preventable diseases including influenza (flu) and pneumonia. Flu increases the risk of heart attack by three to five times and stroke by two to three times in the first two weeks of infection for adults age 65 and older. Getting a flu vaccine lowers your risk of heart attack and stroke in addition to helping to protect against flu.

Staying current on all recommended vaccinations helps us to stay healthy and also protects those around us who are at greatest risk of serious complications from vaccine-preventable diseases. Outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases can lead to disabilities, hospitalization, long-term complications, and even death. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, outbreaks of other infectious diseases will further strain the capacity of U.S. hospitals and health systems.

Fortunately, healthcare professionals have rallied to develop innovative strategies to make vaccinations quick, easy, and safe—including setting up vaccine “clinics” in parking lots and scheduling separate office hours for vaccinations. Healthcare professionals, who are well-trained in minimizing the risk of transmission of communicable diseases, wear personal protective equipment and enforce social distancing as the norm. Yet despite these efforts, studies have found that vaccination rates dropped dramatically across all age groups during the COVID-19 pandemic, with demand plummeting as much as 95 percent for some vaccines. An analysis from VaxCare recently found that vaccination rates for older adults dropped an alarming 83 percent compared to last year. These stories are confirmed by my colleagues across the country who are deeply concerned about their patients not receiving recommended vaccines.

Vaccines are one of the most important and effective public health tools against a variety of diseases across the lifespan. From measles to flu, science has shown the tremendous benefits of well-vaccinated populations. Look no further than the urgency to develop a safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine to see the tremendous role vaccines play in protecting public health and, ultimately, giving communities the confidence they need to return to normal activities such as school and work.

The National Foundation for Infectious Diseases (NFID) is leading a national Keep Up The Rates campaign to encourage all individuals to receive recommended vaccines that may have been delayed during the pandemic. The multi-media campaign engages national experts and leading public health organizations, including the Alliance for Aging Research, with the goal of reaching populations most at risk of delaying vaccinations or experiencing complications from vaccine-preventable diseases.

We need help in spreading these messages as widely as possible to help close the gap in the substantial declines in U.S. vaccination rates. Join us in encouraging your family, friends, and patients to stay up-to-date on all recommended vaccines. Together, we can make our communities as healthy as possible. Visit www.nfid.org/KeepUpTheRates to learn more.

William Schaffner, MD, is medical director of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases.