As the race for a COVID-19 vaccine intensifies, health care officials are reminding the public not to forget another important vaccine this fall: the flu shot.
Flu season in the U.S. technically began in September, with illnesses expected to peak in December and February, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). Less than half of Americans received a flu vaccine during the 2019-2020 flu season, and a staggering 405,000 hospitalizations and 22,000 deaths were attributed to influenza.
These numbers alone are daunting, but with the nation still in the grips of the COVID-19 pandemic, health care officials say it’s more important than ever to get a flu shot.
You might think that mask wearing, social distancing, and increased hand washing — all recommended practices to slow the spread of COVID-19 — would lead to a less serious flu outbreak this season. Although these measures can slow the spread of any virus, the flu vaccine remains a vital tool in reducing the impacts of both viruses occurring simultaneously, said Dr. David Glenn Weismiller, a professor in the Department of Family and Community Medicine at the UNLV School of Medicine.
“Like SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19), influenza is a respiratory virus. From the perspective of public health, it is important to do everything we can to minimize having two respiratory outbreaks circulating at the same time in our population,” Weismiller said.
By lessening the effects of the influenza virus, the flu vaccine can help reduce the burden on the health care system, reserving medical resources for the care of COVID-19 patients.
“Even with a mild flu season, the convergence with a COVID surge could very rapidly overwhelm our hospital system,” Weismiller said.
Dr. Weismiller provides additional insight on the potential forecast for the current flu season:
What are the indicators that will predict the severity of the flu season in the United States?
The burden of influenza disease in the U.S. can vary widely and is determined by a number of factors including: the characteristics of the circulating viruses; the timing of the season; how well the vaccine is working to protect against illness; and how many people get vaccinated.
On the one hand, masks and social distancing may decrease our burden of influenza across the country this season. This was certainly the case in many areas of the southern hemisphere where the flu season is just ending. The trends in places like Australia suggest a milder [flu] season for the United States as well, but there are no guarantees. However, unlike the U.S., many countries in the southern hemisphere adopted exceedingly stringent mask use and social distancing policies.
Colder winters in the north mean that people will be forced indoors where the risk of respiratory infections from close contact is higher.
In addition, due to remote work practices, individuals who historically were vaccinated in the workplace may miss getting shots this year.
Who’s most vulnerable to get the flu during the pandemic?
In any flu season, certain groups are at highest risk for flu complications. This includes: adults 65 years and older, and children younger than 2; people with chronic health conditions like asthma, heart disease, and diabetes; and those with weakened immune systems, including conditions requiring chemotherapy or those infected with HIV. In addition, pregnant women and people who live in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities are at increased risk. The more people in all age groups get a flu vaccine, the more protected these vulnerable populations will be.
Will getting a flu shot prevent me from getting COVID?
Flu vaccines will not prevent COVID-19, but they will reduce the burden of flu illnesses, hospitalizations, and deaths on the health care system and conserve scarce medical resources for the care of people with COVID-19.
Should people who have tested positive for COVID-19, or those in close contact with people who have tested positive, get a flu shot?
Most definitely. Influenza and SARS CoV-2 both target the lungs. And to the extent that the lungs are damaged by one disease and the other one comes along and damages it more, you can get into trouble potentially much faster.
Is it better to get a flu shot now or wait until later during flu season?
The recommendation is to be immunized as early as possible and definitely before Oct. 31. Once you receive your flu shot, it takes two weeks for your body to develop antibodies that provide protection. However, getting vaccinated too early (for example, in July or August) is likely to be associated with reduced protection against flu infection later in flu season, particularly among older adults. Now is the ideal time. Vaccinations should continue to be offered throughout the flu season, even into January or later, but this is not optimal. Children ages 6 months to 8 years who are being vaccinated for the first time or who previously only received one dose and need two doses to be protected should start the vaccination process sooner, because the two doses must be given at least four weeks apart.
Generally speaking, receiving the seasonal influenza vaccine should protect you for the duration of the current flu season. You need to receive a seasonal influenza vaccine every year to have the best protection against influenza viruses.
The CDC now has a test for flu and COVID-19. Should I take this test?
The new test —which will check for A and B types of seasonal flu viruses and SARS CoV-2 — will not replace any COVID-19 and seasonal flu tests currently used in commercial laboratories, hospitals, clinics, and other health care settings. In August, the FDA provided the CDC emergency-use authorization for the new dual test. This new test is designed for use at CDC-supported state and local public health laboratories, where it will supplement and streamline surveillance for flu and COVID-19. The use of this specialized test will be focused on public health surveillance efforts in the U.S.