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Coronavirus pandemic could lead to flu vaccine shortage this fall

Though manufacturers are increasing production, fewer than half of Americans received a flu vaccine during the '18-'19 flu season.

ROCKVILLE, Md. — In the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area there is optimism that the worst of the coronavirus pandemic is behind us.

Localities in Virginia, Maryland and D.C. are slowly easing into phased reopening plans as the positivity rates and the number of hospitalizations are on a steady decline.

Local health officials who spoke with WUSA9, however, are concerned that in late fall and early winter 2021 the seasonal influenza virus could push medical workers and hospitals to the brink once again. 

Doctor Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control, told the Washington Post in late April, "There’s a possibility that the assault of the (COVID-19) virus on our nation next winter will actually be even more difficult than the one we just went through.”

“We’re going to have the flu epidemic and the coronavirus epidemic at the same time,” Dr. Redfield told the newspaper.

CDC statistics report 45% of Americans got a flu shot in the '18-'19 flu season, the most recent for which government numbers are available. 

RELATED: VERIFY: Do less than half of U.S. adults get vaccinated for the flu?

"The symptoms of coronavirus and flu are very similar and when they’re mixed in together it’s going to be very difficult for us to tell the difference between coronavirus and influenza virus," said Jenna Vallejo, chief operating officer of Potomac Pediatrics in Rockville, Maryland. 

Because the symptoms are so similar, health experts say being vaccinated against the flu this year is vital. 

"Having both of them (flu and coronavirus) would potentially be overburdening the health care system," said Dr. Leonard Friedland who leads the vaccine team at global healthcare company GSK. 

"We expect there could be another wave of COVID disease. If we can reduce the burden of influenza it will help our healthcare systems because there will be fewer people who would otherwise be hospitalized," said Dr. Friedland. "Its going to be so important we have robust influenza immunization programs in the United States."

Right now vaccine manufacturers, including GSK, are spinning up production to prepare this year's supply of flu vaccine to be distributed across the country. 

During this most recent flu season GSK provided 46 million doses of the influenza vaccine in the U.S., according to Dr. Friedland. That's more than a quarter of the 170 million flu vaccines provided to Americans from autumn of 2019 into early 2020. 

A GSK spokesperson confirmed to WUSA9 the company is increasing production and plans to manufacture 50 million doses of flu vaccine for this upcoming flu season. 

Pediatrician Dr. Caren Glassman says flu vaccines start arriving in August and they protect you for the entire flu season.

"I think as soon as the flu vaccine becomes available there is going to be a large demand for those vaccines," said Glassman. "We gave approximately 11,000 flu vaccines last year and I anticipate we’re going to give probably double (this season). 

Both Friedland and Glassman offered a bit of encouraging news. The flu spreads exactly like coronavirus, both on surfaces and with in-person contact and proximity. So, the doctors say, if people continue with a a good regimen of hand washing, sanitizing and cleaning, social distancing and wearing masks that combined with increased vaccination rates would likely lead to fewer flu cases in the U.S. 

RELATED: VERIFY: No, the flu shot won't make you test positive for COVID-19

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