After a relatively mild flu season last year, health officials are predicting a backlash for 2020; in fact, one person has already died – and the school year is barely underway. It doesn't bode well for the sports season and gives planners of youth events good cause to consider mandating, or at least recommending, flu shots.
The early warning signs, after all, are more than worrisome. According to US News and World Report, a 4-year-old in California with underlying health problems tested positive for the flu earlier this month and died. Dr. Cameron Kaiser, a health official from Riverside County, where the child was from, said in a press release that "a death so early in the flu season suggests this year may be worse than usual."
US News and World Report also noted that officials look to Australia's flu season as an indicator of the upcoming season in the U.S. Australia, where winter just ended, experienced an early flu season that was particularly severe, with the influenza strain H3N2 dominant and particularly bad. (H3N2 is one of three viruses this year’s vaccine will address.)
Australia's Department of Health said flu activity was higher this season than past seasons, and 93 percent of cases reported were Influenza A.The fact that many parents consider the flu to be a rite of passage, despite its potential severity, isn’t helping the case. In 2018, the CDC noted that about 100 children have died in each of the past several flu seasons. Data from recent years has shown that among pediatric flu deaths, most victims had not received a flu shot.
“We should never forget that the flu kills. I always recommend people get their flu shots every year," Kaiser said, adding that it is not too early to get the vaccine. Most grocery stores, pharmacies and big-box stores with health clinics offer flu shots, generally free of charge. Health officials say September and October are the best months to get a flu shot; that time frame provides protection throughout even the early part of the flu season, when kids are back in school – as well as when they’re playing sports both indoors and outdoors.
According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), manufacturers have projected they will provide between 162 million and 169 million doses of vaccine for the U.S. market for the 2019-2020 flu season – that season generally runs from October to May. Cases of the flu tend to pick up around late fall and peak in mid-February – exactly when youth sports are moving inside and staying there until spring.
However, a wrinkle this year may be the World Health Organization’s delay in its decision on one of the components used in the H3N2 vaccine for the 2019-2020 flu season. Although a decision was ultimately made and the vaccine is now available, health officials are waiting to find out whether the supply will meet the demand.
The CDC advises that almost everyone over the age of 6 months, including pregnant women, receive the flu vaccine every year.
Event owners, particularly those of youth sports, should consider themselves on notice here, since a strong flu epidemic can certainly lay waste to even the best-laid plans. Requiring flu shots – or even suggesting them – may be one option, although there are certainly those who will object to such rules.
Some states are listed as “anti-vaxxer hotspots,” because of the number of NME (non-medical exemptions, or parents who object to having children vaccinated based on religious or philosophical beliefs). The 12 states showing an increase in NMEs are Arkansas, Arizona, Idaho, Maine, Minnesota, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Utah. Six more states — Colorado, Louisiana, Michigan, Missouri, Washington and Wisconsin — also allow the exemptions. Within those states, the study also noted 15 metropolitan areas where more than 400 kindergarten-aged children aren't vaccinated:
- Arizona — Phoenix
- Utah — Provo, Salt Lake City
- Washington — Seattle, Spokane
- Oregon — Portland
- Michigan — Detroit, Troy, Warren
- Texas — Houston, Fort Worth, Plano, Austin
- Pennsylvania — Pittsburgh
- Missouri — Kansas City
So what can event planners do? State-by-state regulations (and exemptions) may govern what tournament directors can specify as their vaccine requirements for participants. Those who want to examine their options should contact an attorney who can investigate and help create any applicable language. It is also helpful to have a policy regarding whether athletes can (or should) attend or participate in sports events if they are exhibiting symptoms of various diseases.
History in the industry has shown that a lack of vaccinated children can result in outbreaks and in some cases, officials are pushing back; in fact, last year, in light of a measles epidemic, a New York suburb took an unprecedented step: banning children who had not yet been vaccinated from public places – including sports events – for the duration of the outbreak. (The spoke in measles cases began in September when children returned to school.)
It is too early to know, obviously, whether a tougher flu season will result in the cancellations of sports events, although there is plenty of evidence that it can. In 2009, swine flu outbreaks had sports event owners pulling the plug on scheduled events, and in 2015, fears of bird flu closed down some activities associated with state fairs. Even the mumps surfaced in the NHL several years ago.
SDM will continue to follow this developing issue. In the meantime, take our poll: Should event owners be able to require athletes to have a flu shot in order to participate in a tournament?