Q:Since we are mostly maintaining social distance—working from home and kids are doing virtual learning so far—is it still worth it to get the flu shot this year?
What do you call it when the seasonal influenza season starts coming around in the middle of a pandemic called COVID-19? (I know this sounds like the beginning of a bad joke!) The term for this hypothetical medical nightmare is a “twindemic.”
Even with people wearing masks and many staying home and socially distant, it is vital that as many people as possible get the flu shot this year. The flu is not just a really bad cold, as some people incorrectly believe. The flu kills tens of thousands of people in the U.S. every year, with the very young, the very old and those with weakened immune systems the most vulnerable.
Although the medical community cannot predict where the COVID rates are going to go over the next few months, we do know that by reducing the chances of our patients getting the flu, we can potentially reduce the strain and burden that could wreak havoc on our hospital system if both viruses are in high circulation.
It is entirely possible that someone can get both COVID and the flu at the same time, and we have no idea what that would mean for patients who got both because this has never happened before.
Because both COVID and influenza have an overlap in symptoms, it will help me as a primary care physician to figure out what is more likely when a patient comes in with a fever, body aches and a cough if I know they had their flu shot. Also, if a patient gets either the flu or COVID, it can weaken their immune system and make them more vulnerable to get the other virus if they have not been vaccinated.
So, why else should you get the flu shot this year? Well, there are some things we can control, and at least there is a way we can reduce our chances of getting the flu. Although the flu shot varies in effectiveness, getting vaccinated can lessen the severity of symptoms if you do fall ill. And you cannot get influenza from getting the flu vaccine. I promise.
There are options this year for the type of flu vaccine you can get, so talk to your doctor about what is right for you. There is a high dose option for those over age 65, which offers even more protection, a nasal mist for those afraid of needles, and even an egg-free and mercury version called Flublok.
The CDC recommends that everyone over 6 months old get vaccinated for the flu. The best time to get the vaccine is from now through the end of October, as your body takes about two weeks to make enough antibodies for protection. The shot should last for at least six months.
Although it is too soon to say how this year’s flu season will be, let’s do what we can to keep us all safe. The Southern Hemisphere, which goes through its flu season during our summer, had lower than expected rates, probably due to a combination of mask wearing, social distancing and higher numbers of people getting vaccinated. Let us hope the same results come our way. This is not the year to “take your chances.”
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