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Managing Influenza in 2020: Cutting Through Pandemic Confusion

It probably won’t come as a surprise to hear that flu season is just around the corner. Nor that it promises to be all the more challenging due to COVID-19. This season is also taking on a new urgency—as the potential for serious complications ramps up if patients contract flu and COVID-19 at once.

Flu season is tough to manage at the best of times. Developing effective vaccines is an educated guess that doesn’t always pan out. Further downstream, inherent skepticism among a large minority doesn’t help. Last year, almost 40% of adults (including 19% over 60) said they wouldn’t get a flu shot. Perceived side effects and lack of efficacy were major reasons cited.

Now, on top of these challenges, consumers are looking for answers to a host of new and sometimes complex questions. Answers that require an added measure of reassurance and explanation. Even the 60% who typically welcome vaccinations might not be a shoo-in this flu season. A flexible and adaptive approach to communications and education may be needed to persuade healthcare consumers.

This year a premium should be placed on personalized education. Consider avoiding or modifying purely prescriptive communication that could fail to capture unique concerns. A more discursive, interactive type may better address confusion and misconception, guiding customers to pragmatic resolutions that leave them pacified, satisfied and prepared.

What is one of the first concerns a provider might need to address (whether verbalized or not)? “Can I trust your advice?” This may sound odd at first glance, but it shouldn’t be dismissed when developing a flu engagement strategy. In the wake of COVID-19, it’s been widely reported that trust in healthcare has been damaged. This is already leaving its mark. Overall vaccination rates declined nationwide during the pandemic’s first wave.

Anticipating another top-of-mind question (Do I have flu or COVID-19?), CVS Chief Executive Larry Merlo recently told Reuters, a news agency, that “If we can eliminate…people getting flu symptoms [by giving them flu shots] and [thereby prevent] their first reaction being ‘Is this the seasonal flu or is this COVID,’ it can take demand off of COVID-19 testing.” In addition to helping providers manage capacity by persuading customers to get inoculated against flu, this limits scope for “flu versus COVID” confusion. Especially among those most vulnerable to catching both viruses such as the elderly, immunocompromised, and those with respiratory conditions.

To complicate matters for all—consumers and providers alike—we’re expecting this flu season to be more aggressive than usual.  Manufacturers are ready to boost vaccine production by 20% above norms. For healthcare systems to avoid being overwhelmed, supply is not the only prerequisite. A premium should be placed on education to activate preventive-care behaviors and timely action by customers, such as persuading them to get a flu vaccination. Even giving a willing customer a flu shot, however, has potential complications this year. If they have symptoms like a temperature for example, their flu shot might need to be delayed pending COVID-19 evaluation. Be ready to answer: “Why can’t I get a flu shot if I have a temperature?—It’s never been an issue before.”

Also be prepared to address issues like “Do COVID precautions help with flu?” Evidence from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggests that social distancing can help prevent flu transmission. Reinforcing this and other preventive behaviors could slow its spread. To gain compliance, however, you may need to counter “COVID fatigue.” This emerging state of mind expresses the sense that “enough’s enough.” It reflects an overwhelming need for some to return to normal life, and in the process dismiss health risks—perhaps flu among them. This mindset might be one reason COVID-19 has surged again recently, and why August 12th saw nearly 1,500 COVID-19 deaths—the most in a single day for three months.

Many other qualms and questions add to this flu season’s unique challenges. Some reflect the potential impact of a flu-COVID double whammy wave.  Considerations include whether infection with one makes getting the other more or less likely, or if they are more or less damaging if caught concurrently. And, whether you can have a natural immunity to flu or COVID-19 (from T Cells for example). Or even if the bad flu season predicted could edge out or tamp down COVID-19 (a phenomenon called viral interference). Whatever the question, be prepared with engagement strategies that offer the right answers, and route care accordingly.

The takeaway? During any flu season—this more than others—tailored education and agile communication is important. These can help customers make sense of a complex healthcare landscape and decide if they need to seek care. Good luck!

mPulse is pleased to help. Details of our Flu Engagement Solution may be found here.

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