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Seniors should take the initiative to keep up with vaccinations despite the pandemic

Peggy Stein, 68, a retired teacher in Berkeley, Calif., skipped a flu shot this year. Her reasoning: “How could I get the flu if I’m being so incredibly careful because of COVID?”

Karen Freeman, 74, keeps meaning to be vaccinated against shingles, but hasn’t done so. A retired college administrator in St. Louis, she quipped that “denial has worked well for me these many years.”

Sheila Blais, who lives on a farm in West Hebron, N.Y., has never received any adult vaccine. She also has never contracted the flu. “I’m such an introvert I barely leave the farm, so where’s my exposure?” said Blais, 66, a fiber artist. “If it’s not broke, don’t fix it.”

While older adults await vaccination against COVID-19, public health officials also worry about their forgoing, forgetting, fearing or simply not knowing about those other vaccines — the ones recommended for adults as we age and our immune systems weaken.

“There’s a lot of room for improvement,” said Dr. Ram Koppaka, associate director for adult immunization at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Every year, campaigns urge older adults to protect themselves against preventable infectious diseases. After all, influenza alone has killed 12,000 to 61,000 Americans annually over the past decade, most of them 65 or older, and has sent 140,000 to 810,000 people a year to hospitals.

The coronavirus pandemic has introduced another imperative. Those hospitals are filling fast with COVID-19 patients; in many places they are already swamped, their staffs overworked and exhausted.

“Knowing how stressed the health care system is, prevention is key,” said Dr. Nadine Rouphael, a vaccine researcher and infectious disease specialist at Emory University. “When we have record numbers of deaths, why would you go to a hospital for a vaccine-preventable illness?”

Yet the nation has long done a better job of vaccinating its children than its elders. The most recent statistics, from 2017, show that about one-third of adults over 65 had not received a flu shot within the past year. About 30% had not received the pneumococcus vaccine.

The proportion receiving the shingles vaccine, a fairly recent addition to the list, has inched up, but by 2018 only 34.5% of people over 60 had been vaccinated.

Moreover, Koppaka pointed out: “When you look deeper, there are long-standing, deep, significant differences in the proportion of Black and Hispanic adults getting vaccines compared to their white counterparts. It’s really unacceptable.”

Close to 40% of non-Hispanic whites had been vaccinated against shingles, for instance, compared with fewer than 20% of Blacks and Hispanics.

One might expect a group who can recall polio fears and outbreaks of whooping cough to be less hesitant to get vaccinated than younger cohorts. “You’ll probably have a different concept of vaccination from someone who never experienced what a serious viral illness can do,” Koppaka said.

When it comes to the COVID-19 vaccine, for instance, only 15% of those over 65 say they would definitely or probably not get it, compared with 36% of those 30-49, a Kaiser Family Foundation tracking poll showed earlier this month. (Stein, Blais and Freeman all said they would happily accept the COVID vaccine.)

But for other diseases, vaccination rates lag. Given that older people are more vulnerable to severe illness from them, why the gaps in coverage?

Internists and other doctors for adults don’t promote vaccines nearly as effectively as pediatricians do, said Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist at Vanderbilt University. Older patients, who often see a variety of doctors, may also have trouble keeping track of when they got which shot.

Experts fear that vaccination rates may have fallen further during the pandemic, as they have among children, if older people wary of going to doctors’ offices or pharmacies skipped shots.

Financial and bureaucratic obstacles also thwart vaccination efforts. Medicare Part B covers three vaccines completely: influenza, pneumococcus and, when indicated, hepatitis B.

The Tdap and shingles vaccines, however, are covered under Part D, which can complicate reimbursement for doctors; the vaccines are easier to obtain in pharmacies. Not all Medicare recipients buy Part D, and for those who do, coverage varies by plan and can include deductibles and copays.

Still, older adults can gain access to most recommended vaccines for no or low cost, through doctors’ offices, pharmacies, supermarkets and local health departments. For everyone’s benefit, they should.

Here’s what the CDC recommends:

Influenza. An annual shot in the fall — and it’s still not too late, because flu season peaks from late January into February. Depending on which strain is circulating, the vaccine (ask for the stronger versions for seniors) prevents 40 to 50% of cases; it also reduces illness severity for those infected.

Thus far this year, flu activity has remained extraordinarily low, perhaps because of social distancing and masks or because closed schools kept children from spreading it. Manufacturers shipped a record number of doses, so maybe more people got vaccinated. In any case, fears of a flu/COVID “twindemic” have not yet been realized.

Nevertheless, infectious disease experts urge older adults (and everyone over 6 months old) to get flu shots now.

Tetanus, diphtheria, pertussis. A booster of TD vaccine every 10 years, to prevent tetanus and diphtheria. If you’ve never had the Tdap vaccine — which adds prevention against pertussis — that’s the one you want. Although pertussis, better known as whooping cough, occasionally shows up in adults, newborns are particularly at risk. Pregnant women will ask expectant grandparents to get a Tdap shot. Because it is covered under Part D, a pharmacy is the best bet.

Pneumococcus. “It’s a pneumonia vaccine, but it also prevents the most serious consequences of pneumonia, including meningitis and bloodstream infections,” Koppaka said.

People over 65 should get the polysaccharide formula — brand name Pneumovax — but there are certain circumstances, such as immune-compromising conditions, to discuss with a health care provider.

Those over 65 may choose, again in consultation with a provider, to also get the conjugate pneumococcal vaccine (brand name Prevnar), which provides some additional protection. If so, CDC guidelines specify which vaccine to take when.

Shingles. Social distancing won’t ward off this disease; anyone who had chickenpox, which is just about every senior, still carries the virus.

“If you live to be 80, you stand a 35 to 50% chance of having an episode,” Schaffner said. “And the older you are when you get it, the more apt you are to get the most serious complication” — lingering nerve pain called post-herpetic neuralgia.

The CDC recommends Shingrix, the highly effective shingles vaccine the Food and Drug Administration approved in 2017, for everyone over 50. The previous shingles vaccine has been discontinued. Get Shingrix even if you had the earlier vaccine, Zostavax, and even if you’ve had shingles — it can recur.

The two required shots, given two to six months apart, can total $300 out of pocket. But Medicare Part D beneficiaries will pay an average of $50 for the pair, said a spokesman for the manufacturer GlaxoSmithKline, and people with private insurance even less.

Hepatitis A and hepatitis B. These aren’t age-related; the vaccines are recommended for people with certain health conditions, including chronic liver disease and HIV infection, or for travelers to countries where the diseases are widespread.

The hepatitis B vaccine is also recommended, at a provider’s discretion, for diabetics over 60 who haven’t been previously vaccinated. Talk to a health care professional about your risks.

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