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Leveraging COVID-19 Contact Tracing: A New Opportunity to Achieve Flu Vaccine Targets

Updated: Nov 4, 2020

Authors: Vanessa Saunders, Ph.D. and Dean Colston, Ph.D., M.A.

On July 2, 2020, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) published a news release informing the public of an Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) for new tests intended to detect viruses that cause COVID-19 and the flu in the same test.¹ A key takeaway from the emergency authorization is that preparations are being made for the anticipated challenges that will be faced when COVID-19 overlaps with the upcoming flu season. 


While the FDA is working closely with clinical laboratories to address diagnostic tests, education campaigns regarding the 2020 – 2021 flu vaccine have not yet begun. This is despite preparations being well underway to ensure that those with respiratory illnesses receive efficient diagnostics. One could argue that while the COVID-19 pandemic is in full swing a flu vaccination campaign may be premature; however, a unique opportunity to educate the public in preparation for flu season has presented itself.  


Despite extensive vaccination campaigns, a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) summarizing findings from two nationally representative surveys, the National Immunization Survey-Flu (NIS-Flu) and the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS), indicate that national objectives for flu vaccination rates were not achieved during the 2018 – 2019 flu season. The findings of these combined surveys suggest that < 50% of American adults received the vaccine.² 


While many have focused on healthcare innovations such as telehealth, COVID-19 has also shed light on the established public health practice of contact tracing. The goals of contact tracing are to break the cycle of transmission and minimize the spread of COVID-19 or other infectious diseases. In that vein, contact tracers identify those individuals who have COVID-19 and those who were in close contact with them during the period when they could spread the infection. Contact tracers then provide guidance and community resources regarding important issues, such as recognizing symptoms and requesting isolation or quarantine.³


Multiple organizations have since trained and deployed small armies of contact tracers to support state health departments.⁴⁻⁵ These individuals develop positive relationships with patients and those exposed to COVID-19. Therefore, the possibility exists for health departments to use contact tracers to shed light on the importance of the flu vaccine during follow-up calls.  


Post-crisis leadership requires the identification of opportunities to protect the public. Health department personnel can leverage the new era of the contact tracer by educating people who have been exposed to and recovered from COVID-19 on how to protect themselves against the flu. Altogether, planting a seed of prevention is always a wise public health strategy to slow the spread of infectious diseases.  


References

  1. Coronavirus (COVID-19) Update: FDA Authorizes Additional COVID-19 Combination Diagnostic Test Ahead of Flu Season. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. https://www.fda.gov/news-events/press-announcements/coronavirus-covid-19-update-fda-authorizes-additional-covid-19-combination-diagnostic-test-ahead-flu. Published July 2, 2020. Accessed July 2, 2020. 

  2. Flu Vaccination Coverage, United States, 2018–19 Influenza Season. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/flu/fluvaxview/coverage-1819estimates.htm. Updated September 26, 2019. Accessed July 2, 2020.

  3. Contact Tracing. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/daily-life-coping/contact-tracing.html. Updated June 21, 2020. Accessed July 3, 2020. 

  4. Pearce K. Johns Hopkins launches online course to train army of contact tracers to slow spread of COVID-19. HUB: Johns Hopkins University. https://hub.jhu.edu/2020/05/11/free-contact-tracing-course-johns-hopkins/. Published May 11, 2020. Accessed July 3, 2020. 

  5. As Unemployment Rates Rise, Thousands of COVID-19 Contact Tracers Trained Through New Online Training Course in All 50 States. ASTHO. https://www.astho.org/Press-Room/As-Unemployment-Rises-Thousands-of-COVID-19-Contact-Tracers-Trained-Through-New-Online-Training-Course-in-All-50-States/05-15-20/. Published May 15, 2020. Accessed July 3, 2020.