Just 17% of adult Americans received the updated COVID-19 vaccine as of early December 2023, and “that’s not enough,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Mandy Cohen, MD, told the U.S. Congress.

“About 70%–80% of American adults over the age of 18 have at least one condition that puts them at higher risk of a bad outcome,” Cohen said. “Getting vaccinated decreases your risk of hospitalization and death, but it also decreases your risk of long COVID.”

With many patients immunocompromised, cancer is one of the conditions that increases negative health risks after contracting COVID-19, CDC says—particularly in individuals from underrepresented populations. Oncology nurses can encourage their patients to get vaccinated, but some patients may not be able to build a sufficient immune response to the vaccine or may not be appropriate candidates for it at all. In those situations, oncology nurses can use their role as public health advocates to encourage patients’ caregivers, family members, and close community to stay updated on their COVID-19 and other vaccinations to protect the patient.

“This is the first fall and winter virus season in which vaccines are—or soon will be—available for all three viruses responsible for most for hospitalizations and deaths: the coronavirus, respiratory syncytial virus or RSV, and flu viruses. The more people who get the shots, the bigger difference it can make in how many Americans are sick and the ability of our healthcare system to handle influxes of patient,” Cohen said in an op/ed she penned for the New York Times.

Cohen’s advocacy can provide oncology nurses with inspiration for their advocacy. Her New York Times editorial kicked off a fall 2023 national tour in which Cohen promoted vaccination throughout the United States.

“As a doctor, a mother, and the head of the CDC, I would not recommend anything to others that I wouldn’t recommend for my own family. My 9- and 11-year-old daughters, my husband, my parents, and I will all be rolling up our sleeves to get our updated COVID-19 vaccines along with our flu shots soon. I hope you and the people you care about will do the same,” Cohen said.