Fall is here, apples are ripe for the picking and school is back in session, but as we put our gardens to bed and prep our homes for winter, we should do the same when considering our health this season. COVID-19 has consumed our attention but there’s another threat right around the corner: the flu.
“Influenza kills people every year,” says Jesse Leyse, MD, an infectious disease expert at UVM Health Network – Central Vermont Medical Center. During the 2019/2020 flu season across the United States, there were anywhere from 39 to 56 million cases of influenza. (Note: 2020/2021 flu season data is not yet available from the CDC). As many as 62,000 people died. Today, with more than 680,000 COVID-19 deaths (and counting) nationwide and new spikes in infection rates around the country, the thought of two pandemics – a “twindemic” – means that it is essential that we do everything we can to prevent the flu.
Getting the flu vaccine makes you less likely to pass the flu on to someone else. Just as wearing a mask protects those around us, getting a flu vaccine is good for you and it’s good for those around you.
Nowhere will the impact of these personal choices be more evident than in our health care facilities. By getting a flu shot, you can help reduce the burden on our health care system and workers, who will be very busy responding to COVID-19. “Every year we talk about flu season as a time when hospitals are really busy and usually full to capacity,” says Dr. Leyse. “If we are full with influenza patients, we are not going to have the capacity to help COVID-19 patients.”
The flu vaccination rate for the 2020-2021 flu season was pretty typical, even with COVID-19 circulating our communities. “Preliminary estimates from the CDC indicate that just 50 to 55 percent of adults got a flu vaccine” last year. Some people say, “Oh, I’ve never had the flu.” Others are concerned about potential side effects. In fact, the flu vaccination, developed in the 1940s, has consistently been proven safe.
Flu activity during the 2020-2021 season was unusually low due to COVID-19 prevention measures, such as masking, staying home when sick, physical distancing and hand washing. It will be important to vaccinate this flu season as many of the prevention efforts that prevented flu from circulating in 2020-2021 have relaxed which, according to analysis by the CDC, may result in an increase in flu activity during the upcoming flu season. The CDC uses the increased presence of other respiratory viruses in 2021 as a potential indicator of increase flu presence this year. “Common respiratory viruses such as respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) and human coronaviruses (not SARS-CoV-2) did not spread as much as usual during the 2020-2021 flu season as in past seasons. However, data from the National Respiratory and Enteric Surveillance System (NREVSS) showed an increase in these viruses’ activity during the summer, outside of their usual seasonal increases.”
For Dr. Leyse, it all comes down to making smart choices to mitigate risk. “You wear a seat belt because if you get into an accident it could save your life,” she says. “Influenza kills people every year, and having a vaccine could save your life.”
There’s no question that the conversation around getting your flu shot has been complicated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Rest assured – it is safe (and advised) to be vaccinated for both COVID-19 and the flu. The CDC has announced that the flu and COVID-19 vaccines can now be given at the same time. Just as we are growing weary of the precautions we need to take to stay healthy, we are constantly reminded that the coronavirus is not tired.
A healthier tomorrow includes a flu shot today. Visit our flu resource page to learn where you can get vaccinated.