Oct. 4, 2022 – Brent called his father, Jeb Teichman, MD, in November 2019 and said he had been feeling sick for the past 3 days. The otherwise healthy 29-year-old had a cough, sore throat and fever.
“It was what the CDC would call a classic flu-like illness,” Jeb Teichman said. “It was too late to start antivirals, so I gave him advice on symptomatic treatment. We texted the next day and I was happy to hear his fever was going down and he was feeling a bit better.”
Two days later, his son called again.
“He said he was having trouble breathing, and on the phone I could hear him hyperventilating.” The retired pediatrician and healthcare executive urged his son to seek medical attention.
“Then I got the call no parent wants to get.”
Brent’s cousin Jake called and said he couldn’t wake Brent up.
“A few minutes later I called Jake back and asked him to hold up the phone,” Teichman said. “I heard EMS working on my son and asked for a lot of medication round after round. He was arrested and they couldn’t revive him.”
“To this day, I still hear those monitors beeping when I close my eyes at night.”
Brent had no health issues that put him at higher risk for flu complications. “Brent was a wonderful son, brother, uncle and friend. He was passionate about everything he did, and that included his chosen calling in the culinary arts, but also the sport at the University of Kentucky,” says Teichman.
Brent was planning to get the flu shot but hadn’t done so yet. “In his obituary, we asked that people get the flu vaccine instead of flowers or donations,” his father said.
“I’m here today to put a face on influenza,” Teichman said at a Tuesday news conference on influenza and pneumococcal disease prevention sponsored by the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases (NFID).
New poll numbers “alarming”
NFID commissioned a national survey of more than 1,000 US adults to better understand their knowledge and attitudes about influenza, pneumococcal disease, vaccines and the impact of COVID-19.
“We were alarmed to learn that only 49% of US adults plan to get the flu shot this season,” said Patricia A. “Patsy” Stinchfield, RN, NFID President and moderator of the Press conference. “That’s not good enough.”
Additionally, 22% of people at higher risk of flu-related complications plan not to get vaccinated this season. “It’s a dangerous risk,” Stinchfield said.
An encouraging finding, she said, is that 69% of adults surveyed agree that annual flu shots are the best way to prevent flu-related hospitalizations and deaths.
“So most people know what to do. We just have to do it,” she said.
The number one reason for not getting the flu shot this year, given by 41% of respondents, is that they think vaccines don’t work very well. Another 39% are concerned about the side effects of the vaccine and 28% skip the vaccine because they ‘never get the flu’.
The panel’s experts emphasized the recommendation that all Americans 6 months and older should get the flu shot, preferably by the end of October. Vaccination is especially important for those who are at higher risk of flu complications, including children under age 5, pregnant women, people with one or more health conditions, the immunocompromised, and Americans age 65 and older.
Stinchfield acknowledges that the effectiveness of the flu vaccine varies from season to season, but even if the vaccine doesn’t fully match the viruses circulating, it can help prevent serious outcomes like hospitalization and death. One of the serious possible complications is pneumonia or “pneumococcal disease”.
“Our survey shows that only 29% of those at risk were advised to get a pneumococcal vaccine,” says Stinchfield.
“The good news is that 74% of those who were recommended to get vaccinated received their pneumococcal vaccine,” she said. “This underscores an important point for you, my colleagues: as healthcare professionals, our recommendations matter.”
Higher doses for Americans over 65
This flu season, the CDC has updated recommendations that adults age 65 and older should receive one of three preferred flu vaccines, said CDC Director Rochelle Walensky, MD. The CDC recommends higher dose, stronger vaccines for older Americans “based on a review of available studies that suggested these vaccines may be more effective than standard-dose vaccines in this age group.”
In most seasons, people aged 65 and over bear the heaviest burden of serious influenza illness and are responsible for most influenza-related hospitalizations and deaths.
“They are the largest vulnerable segment of our society,” Walensky said.
How will this flu season be?
Health officials in the flu vaccine business are typically also in the flu season forecasting business. This includes Walensky.
“Although we will never know exactly what each flu season will bring, we do know that the best way to protect yourself and those around you each year is to get your annual flu vaccine,” she said while attending the briefing remotely attended .
How bad is the flu season going to be this year? William Schaffner, MD, said he gets this question often. “Do not think about it. Just focus on the fact that the flu will be with us every year.”
“We were a bit spoiled. We’ve had two mild influenza seasons,” said Schaffner, NFID medical director and professor of infectious diseases and preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University. “I think with all the interest in COVID, people have pretty much forgotten about influenza. I had to remind them that this is another serious winter respiratory virus.”
“As I like to say, the flu is fickle. It’s hard to predict how serious this next flu outbreak this season will be. We could look at what happened in the southern hemisphere,” he said.
For example, Australia had its worst influenza season in the last 5 years, Schaffner said. “If you want a clue as to what might be happening here and you want yet another reason to get vaccinated, here it is.”
What we do know, Walensky said, is that the timing and severity of the last two flu seasons in the US have been different than typical flu seasons. “And this is likely due to the COVID mitigation measures and other changes in circulating respiratory viruses.” Although the last flu season was “relatively mild,” there was more flu activity than the previous 2020-21 season.
Also, Walensky said last season’s flu cases began to rise in November and remained elevated through mid-June, “making it the last season on record.”
Brent Teichman’s official cause of death was multilobar pneumonia, cause unknown. “But after 30+ years as a pediatrician … I know flu when I see it,” his father said.
“There is a hole in our hearts that will never heal. Losing a child is devastating,” he said. The flu “can kill a healthy young person, like my son.”
“And for everyone who’s listening to my story and hesitating about vaccinations, do it for those you love. So that they don’t go the way that we and many other families in this country have walked.”
To prove their point, Teichman and Stinchfield pulled up their sleeves on Tuesday and received flu shots during the press conference.
“This is for Brent,” Teichman said.