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Massachusetts requires most college students to get flu vaccine to ease burden on well being system throughout pandemic

A flu shot is administered in Chicago.

Antonio Perez | Chicago Tribune | Getty Images

Massachusetts health officials said Wednesday that most students over age 6 months must get a flu vaccine this year as the state prepares to handle Covid-19 and seasonal influenza this fall.

The requirement applies to all students attending state child care, preschool, kindergarten, grade school, colleges or universities. The state expects students to receive the vaccination by Dec. 31, unless the student provides a medical or religious exemption.

Home-schooled students and students at affected colleges and universities who live off campus for the semester are also exempt, the state said. However, it said, college students who attend any activities on campus “even once,” must be vaccinated by Dec. 31.

Massachusetts said the immunization is required for students to enter school in January. 

“The new vaccine requirement is an important step to reduce flu-related illness and ​the overall impact of respiratory illness during the COVID-19 pandemic,” the Massachusetts Department of Public Health said in a statement Wednesday.

The mandate comes as the country prepares for the confluence of the standard influenza season and the Covid-19 pandemic. Fewer than half of American adults, and about 60% of kids, typically get the flu shot each year, CDC data shows. Every year, the flu sickens 9 million to 45 million Americans, causes at least 140,000 hospitalizations and leads to 12,000 to 61,000 deaths, according to the CDC.

Public health officials, including White House coronavirus advisor Dr. Anthony Fauci and director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Dr. Robert Redfield, have previously urged Americans to get vaccinated against the flu this season.

“Every year, thousands of people of all ages are affected by influenza, leading to many hospitalizations and deaths,” said Dr. Larry Madoff, medical director for the Massachusetts Department of Public Health’s Bureau of Infectious Disease and Laboratory Sciences. “It is more important now than ever to get a flu vaccine because flu symptoms are very similar to those of Covid-19 and preventing the flu will save lives and preserve health-care resources.”

To meet the anticipated spike in demand for a flu vaccine this year, the four makers of flu vaccines have said they plan to ship almost 200 million doses to the U.S., up about 19% from last season. 

A bad flu season this year would further strain hospitals, many of which are already stretched thin as they care for Covid-19 patients. Some epidemiologists, including Dr. Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, warn that the country could see a rise in coronavirus cases this winter as schools try to hold in-person classes and the weather forces people indoors, where the virus spreads more easily.

State officials, including New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, have warned it could be a complicated autumn and winter with both viruses circulating at the same time. 

“You’re in the flu season. Everybody is sneezing, everybody is coughing and everybody has a runny nose. Who has the flu and who is possibly Covid positive? It becomes a much more difficult calculus,” Cuomo said during a news briefing on Monday. 

— CNBC’s Meg Tirrell and Harriet Taylor contributed to this report.

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