Less Effective Flu Shot Poses New Risk for Hospital Operators

Already beleaguered hospitals could soon be facing another threat outside the surging Covid-19 case counts: less effective flu vaccines.

The good news is that demand forflu shots is surging this year, indicating that people are heeding health officials’ advice to protect themselves against the respiratory virus. Andcases are still low in the early days of the flu season, which starts picking up in October and peaks from December through March.

However, the effectiveness of those shots may not be enough to prevent an excessive overlap of hospitalizations of patients suffering from the flu with those stricken by Covid-19 amid a second wave of coronavirus infections. Influenza vaccines generally reduce the risk of illness by 40% to 60%, and some evidence suggests this year will be at the lower end of that range, a Morgan Stanley analyst said on Thursday.

That could put renewed pressure on hospital operators, which had just begun bouncing back after steep reductions in medical services unrelated to the coronavirus pandemic. If the surge in Covid cases continues, hospitals could reach capacity and trigger lockdowns before Thanksgiving, a Height Securities policy analyst said last week.

The early November rally for hospital stocks including HCA Healthcare Inc. and Tenet Healthcare Corp. has peeled back over the last few days as U.S. Covid-19 infections hit a record and cases worldwidetopped 52 million. Earlier in the pandemic, hospitals had to postpone more lucrative patient visits for elective procedures such as knee replacements that improve but don’t save lives as facilities were overwhelmed by Covid patients. New hope for a coronavirus vaccine also helped spur the recent gains.

Data from the southern hemisphere suggests the most common flu viruses expected this season will be a form of influenza A, a strain that doesn’t typically respond as well to flu shots, Morgan Stanley’s Matthew Harrison wrote in a research note. Influenza immunizations are more protective against other A strains and B strains of the virus, he said, citing previous research.

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