COVID Meets Flu Season: Keeping the Commercial Market Healthy

We are entering flu season at an especially precarious time. Not only are we amid the COVID-19 pandemic, we are also expected to see a surge in cases this fall and winter. Add flu season to the COVID surge and we are headed towards a healthcare plight, especially when we look at the numbers. During the 2019-2020 flu season, the U.S. saw an estimated 39 to 56 million cases that resulted in 740,000 hospitalizations and approximately 24,000 to 62,000 flu-related deaths. This past flu season was considered mild and peaked before COVID cases became substantial.

It’s obvious that this will not be a typical flu season. Dr. Robert Redfield, Director, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, has said: “I am worried. I do think the fall and the winter of 2020 and 2021 are probably going to be one of the most difficult times that we have experienced in American public health because of the co-occurrence of COVID and influenza.” There are a few reasons why the co-occurrence of COVID and the flu could make things worse this season:

  • COVID is Surging: The U.S. has reached it’s highest recorded number of cases since the start of the pandemic. We currently do not know how a coinfection of COVID and the flu will impact individuals and if it could significantly increase severe health complications, hospitalizations or even death. Further, we know that both the flu and COVID are detrimental to those with chronic conditions and it is yet to be seen what the impacts of having both viruses could be.

The surge could also serve to overwhelm the healthcare system. There were 740,000 hospitalizations due      to the flu last season and over 400,000 have been hospitalized to date due to COVID. The intersection of these two viruses in the coming months could cause a significant number of patients who seek emergency care and require hospitalization. A large increase in numbers could overwhelm hospitals and health systems as they evaluate available beds, resources and staffing. Hospitals will again need to brace themselves for increasing numbers as they did in the beginning  of the pandemic.

  • Distrust in Vaccines and Hospitals: During the 2018-2019 flu season, only 45% of adults in the U.S. received a flu shot. There are number of reasons why people have said they don’t get flu shots, ranging from the vaccine will make them sick or cause side effects, to claiming that they never get sick and therefore do not need the shot. And while the flu shot doesn’t protect against all strains of the flu virus, it has been shown to decrease severity and reduce the need for hospitalization.

There is also a distrust of hospitals due to the pandemic. Many are under the false impression that they will contract COVID if they were to visit an emergency room for an illness. Despite vast efforts in disinfection, social distancing and mask wearing, the general public is still skeptical to visit a healthcare provider for fear that they will be more prone to COVID. Not only does this contribute to those who will avoid getting a flu vaccination, it  also creates more health issues for those with chronic conditions as they avoid or delay necessary care.

An Opportunity to Reach the Commercial Market

While this flu season will present challenges to hospitals and health systems, it will also provide opportunities, especially in terms of growing direct-to-employer relationships. While many hospitals and health systems are launching marketing campaigns that focus on promoting flu shots to the public, an overlooked segment is employer groups in the commercial market. Hospitals and health systems can reach out to local employers with an offer to educate their employees about the importance of the flu vaccine and to dispel common myths. A healthcare provider could attend an onsite educational event to explain how the flu shot works and to answer questions. They could also market to the employer’s population by leaving behind posters and flyers, and sending out emails to employees about their nearest flu shot location or how to schedule a flu shot with a provider.

Further, the hospital could offer to hold on-site flu shot clinics for local employers. This would be a worthwhile effort as vaccine accessibility is often a problem for adults, especially since the pandemic. While many offices, factories and other employer groups used to offer flu shots on-site, this has now become a challenge due to COVID. Employers may not know how to safely administer flu shots on-site and several others have employees that are working remotely. For this reason, hospitals and health systems become the obvious partners to help employers get much needed flu shots to their employee population.

It’s an easy pitch to employers as failures in preventions, such as missing a flu shot, make up 4% of healthcare spending waste, or $462 per employee. This results in high employer healthcare costs down the line as sick employees will have increased absenteeism, potentially face hospitalization or see the worsening of chronic conditions. And, as companies such as CVS Health are expected to significantly increase seasonal staff to be able to administer vaccines, the increased competition sets the stage for hospitals and health systems to take flu shot clinics directly to employers.

Technology to Reach the Commercial Market with Flu Shots

By partnering with Applied Health Analytics, hospitals and health systems can effectively roll-out flu shot clinics to employers. Utilizing Applied Health Analytics’ bIQ™ Population Health Management platform, hospitals and employers can manage, promote and track flu vaccination efforts through the following:

  • Event Registration: Employers can add flu shot clinics to the events section of their employee health portals and actively promote these events. Employees can locate upcoming flu shot clinics and even register for a flu shot appointment. Those who signed up to receive their flu shot will receive appointment reminders and those who didn’t will receive notifications that clinic dates are approaching.
  • Incentives: Employers can incentivize their employees to get the flu shot. The incentives could be health benefit credits, monetary rewards or award points that can help the participant reach a certain achievement level. The employer can customize their incentive program to meet the unique needs of their employee population and the company’s designated incentive program. Employees can track their progress and incentive awards in their personalized health portal.
  • Tracking and Reporting: Employers will be able to see what percentage of their population received a flu shot or is scheduled to do so. This will help them determine if they need to increase awareness of flu shot clinics and how they can encourage employees to sign up if they haven’t already done so. Reports will also allow the employer to see if their high-risk populations, who are most vulnerable to flu complications, have received their flu shot. Overall, the employer can view the cost savings realized by employees who received a flu shot versus the potential costs for those who did not.

If you would like to learn more about how Applied Health Analytics can help you work directly with employers on a commercial wellbeing solution that includes flu vaccinations, contact Applied Health Analytics to set up a strategy session today.