Flu shots more important than ever amid pandemic, experts say
Before she became the interim director of public health for Routt County, Roberta Smith spent a good chunk of her career running the influenza vaccination program and adult immunization program for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.
“At one point in my career I did dress up as a flu bug,” Smith admitted.
Her passion and her expertise in encouraging people to get their annual flu shot runs deep.
And in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, Smith said it is more important than ever.
“We need to deploy all the tools we can to prevent influenza — and prevent all complications from influenza — to have enough resources to get us through both the flu and COVID season combined,” she said.
If people weren’t aware before the pandemic, most have now heard the statistic that influenza kills 30,000 to 50,000 Americans every year.
And complications can be very serious, Smith said.
“It’s a mostly preventable death,” added Routt County Chief Medical Officer Dr. Brian Harrington.
But when people ask him about comparing COVID-19 and influenza, Dr. Jon Hamilton, a family medicine physician at UCHealth Primary Care Clinic in Craig, points to the death count: currently more than 160,000 dead for COVID-19 compared to an annual average around 32,000 deaths for influenza. And with COVID-19, he added, “There are still so many things we don’t know.”
It has always been a struggle to raise the public awareness about influenza, Smith said, and if people don’t know someone who died as a result or had experienced a bad case, it typically isn’t on their radar as something serious.
Sixty percent of influenza hospitalizations are among people 65 and older, Hamilton said, and those most at risk have a chronic illness or have compromised immune systems. The vulnerable populations for influenza that differ from COVID-19 include babies under six months old.
But unlike with COVID-19 at this time, there are effective tools to fight against influenza, Smith said, including vaccinations as well as antiviral medications.
One silver lining of the pandemic may be a heightened awareness about the basic hygiene measures Smith and her public health colleagues have been pushing for years: wash your hands, cover your mouth and nose when you cough and sneeze, and stay home if you are sick. Those campaigns have been going on for eons, she said.
And just like wearing a mask to reduce the risk of the spread of COVID-19, by getting an influenza vaccine, “You are also protecting your community,” Smith said.
There’s that sense of individualism, Smith acknowledged, that “let me just get the disease and then I will be protected.” But the problem with that, even with influenza, she said, is that it’s not the best way to be protected.
“If you suffer through the virus — the disease itself — you don’t know what the outcome is going to be. Why risk death when we have a vaccine?” Smith explained.
In addition, you could be spreading that to other, more vulnerable people. “We need to think of the community as a whole,” Smith said, and think, “I’m getting a flu shot not just to protect me, but the whole community.”
Of course getting a flu shot does not guarantee you won’t get the flu, as each year the World Health Organization does their best to choose which A and B strains they predict will spread the most, and then include those in the standard vaccination.
“Their efficacy varies year by year depending on the particular strains circulating, but even in a bad match year, having a vaccine is linked to a less severe disease,” Harrington said.
This year, Smith said three out of the four strains from last year have changed.
Last year’s shot was about 50% effective.
“If you do get the flu, it will be much milder than if you had not gotten the shot,” she said. “It is effective in preventing hospitalizations.”
And if fewer people have severe cases of the flu resulting in hospitalization, that will reduce the burden on the health care system — a crucial goal in a pandemic.
“This year we need to prioritize hospital beds for COVID patients and thus want to reduce the need to use hospital and ventilator capacity for influenza,” Harrington said.
For reducing severe cases of influenza, “We’ve got the tools, so let’s use them,” Smith reiterated. “Let’s use the tools we have to reduce the burden on the health care system.”
Smith is optimistic there will be a COVID-19 vaccine, saying, “It’s a matter of time — maybe early next year.” Still, she cautioned, there will be the logistical issues of mass production, limited supplies of the different components and a need to prioritize who gets the vaccine first.
As flu season approaches, there is also the concern of what a co-infection of influenza and COVID-19 could look like, Smith said. “It could potentially lead to more severity — and more mortality.”
Based on past studies on people getting more than one virus at the same time, “The double whammy of influenza and COVID together cannot be good,” Harrington said.
Because both are respiratory diseases, and because they have similar symptoms, preventing influenza can keep more adults at work and more children in school, Harrington noted.
“We will have a lot of work and challenges to sort through the fall and winter viral syndromes, and eliminating influenza as a major player would help greatly,” he said.
While many of the symptoms of the same, Smith noted those that aren’t, such as a loss of the sense of smell or taste and diarrhea and stomach, which is only attributed to COVID-19. When people say they have the stomach flu, it’s usually not influenza, she said, which is strictly a respiratory disease.
If you have gotten a flu shot and gotten a bad reaction, Smith recommends talking to your doctor. It is a myth that you can get the flu from the vaccine, she said, but some people do have a negative reaction.
Most reactions are mild, Hamilton said, and local to the shot. Most commonly, “You might have mild achiness for a day or two, or a fever — your body is doing what it is supposed to reacting to the shot. It’s an extremely low risk vaccine and the benefits far outweigh the risks,” he explained.
In terms of advice in addition to getting the flu shot that can keep you healthy, Hamilton suggests minimizing alcohol and tobacco, keeping a good diet and exercising. Those simple tasks help boost your immune system, he said.
“We are in times I’ve never seen in my life. And any way we can protect ourselves from illness with something as a simple as an influenza vaccine, we should do it,” Hamilton said.
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