Health: Why COVID-19 makes getting your flu shot more important than ever
Prevent having COVID-19 and the flu simultaneously while protecting your local healthcare systems
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As flu season gets underway in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, healthcare experts are urging people to get their flu shot. Not only will this help to protect individuals and those around them from the virus this fall and winter, but it’ll also help ensure health care systems don’t get overwhelmed by an influx of COVID-19, influenza and other respiratory patients.
In a typical flu season, less than half of all Coloradans get a flu shot, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. Data shows that only about 45 percent of those over the age of 6 months received their influenza vaccine in 2017-2018, which is the most recent data available from CDPHE. The vaccination rate in the state has been on a steady decline since the 2013-2014 flu season, when the vaccination rate peaked at 51 percent.
Nationwide, the flu causes thousands of deaths per year in the U.S. — nearly 600 of which were in Colorado in 2018 — and is the most frequent cause of death from a vaccine-preventable disease. When combining these deaths with the more than 200,000 COVID-19-related deaths nationwide since February — more than 2,000 of which were in Colorado — healthcare experts are worried both viruses will peak simultaneously.
The biggest difference between COVID-19 and the flu is that the flu is a familiar foe with a safe and effective vaccine studied and developed by experienced scientists each year. The flu season typically lasts from October through May, typically peaking in December and again in February, according to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). COVID-19 does not have a vaccine and is expected to peak again some time during flu season this year.
Dr. Netana Machacek, family medicine physician at Memorial Regional Health, suggests individuals get their flu shots in September or October to give the body time to build up its defenses before being exposed to the virus.
Importance of getting your flu shot
Studies have shown those who get a flu shot can reduce their risk of flu illness by 40 to 60 percent, according to the CDC.
Nearly everyone is eligible to get a flu shot, according to Dr. Machacek, as most people older than 6 months old can benefit from the vaccine. The flu shot is especially crucial for individuals with underlying medical conditions, such as asthma or COPD, because these groups are at higher risk of complications from influenza.
“The flu shot gives your body inactivated, or dead, sample pieces of the flu virus,” Dr. Machacek explained. “Your body uses those pieces to create antibodies, an important part of the immune system. The antibodies help your immune system recognize the virus and fight it off later.”
It takes about two weeks after inoculation to develop an immune reaction to the flu, and in that time, individuals can still be susceptible to infection, Dr. Machacek said. The most common reactions to a vaccine are redness or swelling in the area the shot was given, but that does not mean the person is allergic to the flu shot.
Other than keeping you and those around you healthy, benefits of the vaccine include reducing risk of flu-associated hospitalization, offering protection for women during and after pregnancy, preventing flu-related deaths in young children and reducing the severity of the illness in people who get vaccinated but still get sick.
Preparing for COVID-19 and the flu
The seasonal flu and COVID-19 are spread similarly, through droplets created when an infected person coughs, sneezes or speaks within 6 feet of another person. They present similar symptoms, such as fever, cough and sore throat, making it hard to tell the difference based on symptoms alone. Diagnosis cannot be confirmed without testing.
“Most years, getting a flu shot can help you avoid missing days of work or school due to illness,” Dr. Machacek said. “This year, it’s more likely that even mild symptoms such as sneezing, coughing or a sore throat will require lengthy school and work absences as we prove that the symptoms are not due to COVID-19.”
Getting a flu shot won’t protect you from COVID-19. However, it can increase your chances of staying healthy this fall and winter. It can also lessen your chances of having both viruses at the same time.
Dr. Machacek said getting a flu vaccine this year can help decrease the risk of serious illness in the community and the number of flu-related office visits and hospitalizations, meaning healthcare systems are less likely to become overwhelmed.
“The more cases of serious illness that happen at the same time in a community, the more likely that we will not have the staff and equipment to handle it,” she explained.
Current information shows COVID-19 can be contagious up to 10 days after symptoms present, while the flu can be contagious for 5 to 7 days after the start of symptoms. For some individuals, both infections can be contagious for longer periods of time, so talk to your healthcare provider about your risk of spreading the illnesses.
“At a minimum, getting a flu shot can help our community stay healthy while doing our jobs and attending school, which is important for our economy,” Dr. Machacek said. “In a worst-case scenario, it could help us prevent equipment and staff shortages at our local healthcare facilities, preserving our resources to take care of patients that are critically ill with COVID-19 or other diseases.”
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