Few Arizonans get a flu shot: What does that mean for a COVID vaccine?




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A vaccine for COVID-19 may only effectively stop the spread if enough people take it. Photo by Javier Zayas Photography | Getty Images

Arizona public health officials are readying for a rollout of a COVID-19 vaccine in the coming months, but data by health researchers on flu vaccinations suggests that Arizonans might opt not to seek out the vaccination. 

Across the country, roughly one-third of Americans already are saying they likely will not get a COVID-19 vaccine, according to recent polling, with many citing concerns around how quickly the process has moved and possible side effects. 

Arizona already has a history of anti-vaccination beliefs and has some of the most vaccination exemptions in the country, leading to it being labeled an “anti-vaccination hotspot.” Arizona’s elected officials have entered into the vaccine controversy, including one who called mandatory measles vaccines “communist.”

A recent study by the Kaiser Health Foundation into flu vaccination rates may give some insight into how a COVID-19 vaccine might be accepted. 

“While there are important differences between COVID-19 and seasonal flu, including that COVID-19 is much more serious and that the federal government has said it will ensure the vaccine is provided free to all even those who are uninsured, these findings point to several potential challenges to rolling out a COVID-19 vaccine across the United States,” the study concludes

The data examined by researchers is from the 2019-2020 flu season, which was one of the worst in Arizona’s history. During that season, researchers found that only 47% of Arizonans received a flu vaccine, well below the recommended 70% of the population many health officials recommend. 

Arizona was below the national average of 52% and among the bottom 10 states. 

Arizona also had one of the worst rates for people under the age of 65, with only 36% receiving a flu vaccine. Only 42% of non-elderly adults with an underlying health condition received a flu shot in Arizona, the second worst in the nation. 

“Every state has different layers of challenges,” said Dr. Shad Marvasti, an associate professor at the University of Arizona and a physician who has specialized in chronic diseases. “I think the Arizona culture is such that there is more questioning of vaccines.”

Marvasti said there are also concerns about access to health care. 

“We are also very behind in access to having a primary care physician,” Marvasti said. “That’s why you see these urgent cares all over.”

In fact, almost 40% of Arizonans currently live in a health care provider shortage area, and many of those areas are currently the hardest hit by COVID-19

Researchers also found evidence of wide racial disparities. 

White Arizonans were vaccinated for the flu at a much higher rate than their Hispanic and Black counterparts, with 50% of white Arizonans receiving a vaccine. Only 38% of Black Arizonans got a vaccine, as did 44% of Hispanics. 

“We need to have educational campaigns there to gain trust,” Marvasti said of those communities, adding that distrust has been created there due to disproportionate adverse health impacts and lack of access to healthcare. 

However, Marvasti said he people will see the flu vaccine and the COVID-19 vaccine differently. 

The flu has a lower death rate than COVID-19 and the vaccine that is coming out for COVID-19 has a much higher success rate than the flu vaccine, which during a “good” flu season will have between a 50% and 60% success rate. Marvasti thinks that the low success rate for flu vaccines may contribute to people not getting the shot. 

“My hope is that people recognize the difference,” he said, adding that an over 90% vaccine success rate is rare.