Since 2010, data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows that influenza, commonly known as the flu, has caused between 140,000 to 810,000 hospitalizations and between 12,000 to 61,000 deaths annually. In an effort to combat the spread of the virus during the upcoming flu season, as well as a part of the official COVID-19 response, the University of Miami (UM) requires students, faculty and staff on all campuses to take the flu vaccine or show proof of medical or religious exemption.
“This year, especially, with the pandemic, one of the things we wanted to avoid was having people with double viral pneumonia,” said Dr. Emilio Volz, a double board-certified physician who serves as the director of the university’s Student Health Services. “We certainly don’t want to have a bad respiratory virus season on top of [COVID-19]. We actually saw a decrease in acquired infections because people were wearing masks all around, so we had a very light flu season last year and we’re hoping to keep that up.”
According to the CDC, following widespread adoption of measures aimed at curbing the spread of COVID-19, such as mask wearing, social distancing and hand-washing, influenza tests that have come back positive have decreased from 20% to 2.3% for the 2020 flu season.
“I think masking is going to help tremendously, but being immunized against the flu can prevent a potentially devastating thing. You could imagine that having pneumonia and the flu at the same time could be devastating for patients,” Volz said.
The university does allow religious and medical exemptions for individuals who may face a risk of anaphylaxis after the flu shot. The submission deadline for exemptions is Oct. 22.
However, while medical students and other faculty, staff and postdoctoral associates are similarly required to take the COVID-19 vaccine or submit exemptions, undergraduate students are not mandated nor do they have to submit exemptions.
“There’s state regulatory reasons for why it’s not required. It is a requirement for healthcare personnel at UHealth, but for the students it was not required,” Volz said.
“Vaccine mandates have been the law of the land since 1905 in Jacobson v. Massachusetts and these have been held up again and again,” said Dr. Timothy Loftus, the Health Disparities Project Fredman Family Foundation practitioner-in-residence and lecturer in law at the UM School of Law.
“The legal justifications are clear and what it is is that courts don’t feel they should be overriding what is a compelling public health interest,” Loftus said.
Loftus added as the pandemic prolongs, similar to the flu, COVID-19 vaccines may become seasonal.
“One could envision that if [COVID-19] lingers, that this does change,” Loftus said. “You’re talking about a coronavirus season and as time goes on, once the data keeps coming in, there’s no more safety signals as people are walking around now who have had the vaccine in them for well over a year.”
Undergraduate students who spoke to the Hurricane said that with the politicization of the pandemic, they were not expecting a COVID-19 mandate.
“Unfortunately, there’s a lot of political obstacles for UM to force anyone to get the COVID-19 vaccine. It’s almost impossible on an administrative end,” senior neuroscience major Bao Duong said.
Duong said she does understand the university only mandating the flu vaccine, however, due to its longer history serving as proof of its efficacy.
“I think it’s a fair point. Unfortunately, there’s just a lot more hesitation for the COVID-19 vaccine since it only recently got FDA approved whereas the flu vaccine is more established,” Duong said. “I could understand why it’s a lot easier for the school to mandate the one for the flu over [COVID-19].”
Volz added that the flu vaccine is not only protective for the upcoming flu season, but has proved its effectiveness in past ones too.
“Why keep a chance? We have years and years of data that the flu vaccine is safe,” Volz said.“Especially now with the threat of [COVID-19] variants looming over us, it’s in everyone’s best interest to protect themselves and not put them in a scenario where you get sick and into the hospital.”
UM President Julio Frenk, in an address to students on the flu vaccine mandate, said that the flu vaccine will be required for three reasons. First, receiving the vaccine will help to ensure that the seasonal flu does not reduce healthcare resources for those in need of care during a pandemic. Second, flu and COVID-19 symptoms have many similarities, therefore the seasonal flu vaccine will lessen complications to the university’s COVID-19 testing, tracking and tracing efforts. Lastly, because of the unknowns about how the flu and COVID-19 will interact, the flu vaccine will help to eliminate the uncertainties as we work toward solutions.
Frenk ended his address by encouraging students to get vaccinated.
“I encourage everyone to comply with this requirement, whether you are currently coming to campus or you are continuing to work and study remotely. Flu vaccines are available now, by appointment. In fact, I just received my seasonal flu shot,” Frenk said.
Many disease prediction models suggest that the upcoming flu season will see an increase in influenza cases. One study predicted 100,000 to 400,000 more hospitalizations during this upcoming season compared to previous years unless flu vaccinations increased by 20% to 50% from previous years.
“I expect that it’s going to be light still. The reason for that is because of all the masking and the care that we’re taking,” Volz said. “We may see some increased numbers because there’s always a gamble with the virus and the mutations that come from it, so it’s hard to predict, but I do expect that because of all our increased care we’ll see a lighter flu season.”
UM currently hosts a vaccination clinic, which will be located on multiple places on the undergraduate campus. Three types of flu vaccines will be given out: a Fluzone Quadrivalent dose for persons six months of age and older, a Fluzone High-Dose Quadrivalent for persons 65 years of age and older and a Flublok Quadrivalent for persons who are allergic to egg proteins. Students can either make an appointment to schedule a flu shot through MyUHealthChart online or can visit the following locations without an appointment:
RSMAS Library: Tuesday, Sept. 21 from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Hecht and Stanford residential colleges: Wednesday, Sept. 22 from 5:30 to 7 p.m.
Mahoney and Pearson residential colleges: Tuesday, Sept. 28 from 5:30 to 7 p.m.
Eaton Residential College and Lakeside Village: Wednesday, Oct. 6 from 5:30 to 7 p.m.
School of Law: Thursday, Oct. 7 from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.
University Village: Tuesday, Oct. 12 from 5:30 to 7 p.m.