When Should I Worry About...

Should COVID-19 Change How You Approach This Year's Flu Season?

Sep. 9, 2020 - Katie McCallum

Flu season comes every year, but this will be the first time we kick off a flu season during the COVID-19 pandemic. Some of us have always taken flu season seriously, getting vaccinated as soon as the flu shot becomes available. Others...not so much.

But, with a new virus in the mix this year, should you change how you approach this year's flu season?

We spoke to Dr. Wesley Long, director of diagnostic microbiology at Houston Methodist, to get some answers.

Why is it important to take flu season seriously, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic?

The CDC estimates that the 2019-2020 U.S. flu season caused 410,000 hospitalizations and 18 million medical visits. In addition, last year's flu season unfortunately also resulted in at least 24,000 deaths.

And this year, we have the COVID-19 pandemic to deal with, too — which is already placing a strain on hospitals and health care workers across the country.

"We know that a bad flu season can tax our health care system," Dr. Long says. "The concern is that having two competing viruses, both of which are contagious and have the potential to send significant numbers of people to the hospital, could potentially overtax hospitals."

To help ensure that we as a community don't ask more from our health care system than it is realistically able to handle, it is increasingly important to get your flu shot this year.

"While the flu vaccine isn't 100% effective, evidence shows that the vaccine is really good at preventing flu-related hospitalizations — which is important every year, but will be especially important this year with the COVID-19 pandemic still going on."

Plus, getting a flu shot helps protect you from the flu, so you don't have to worry about getting infected by influenza and COVID-19 at the same time. And, from what we know so far, getting both of these viruses at the same time is something you probably want to avoid.

What do we know about getting flu and COVID-19 at the same time?

First of all, we know you can get both COVID-19 and the flu at the same time.

And while you hopefully haven't experienced the uncomfortable symptoms that come along with even just a mild case of COVID-19, you've probably experienced the flu at some point in your life. And you probably also know how miserable it can make even the healthiest of us feel. Combining the two can't be good, right?

"The start of the COVID-19 pandemic came at the tail-end of our last flu season, so it's too early to be able to make generalized claims about how having both viruses may affect clinical outcomes. But, anecdotal reports seem to suggest a higher chance of getting seriously ill," warns Dr. Long. "For instance, here in Houston, a 57 year-old woman spent seven weeks in the ICU on a ventilator after contracting both COVID-19 and the flu at the same time. This may be an extreme case, but it sends a clear warning sign."

This means that it's important to take flu season more seriously than ever this year, and this starts by arming yourself with our best weapon against the flu — a flu shot.

Are there any extra precautions a person should take this flu season?

While having a second virus to worry about this fall and winter may add to your stress, Dr. Long has some good news:

"Both COVID-19 and the flu are respiratory viruses that spread the same way — from person to person through close contact via respiratory droplets. This means that the steps we're taking to stay safe from COVID-19 will also help keep us safe from the flu," explains Dr. Long. "In fact, everything we started doing to reduce the transmission of COVID-19 back in March seems to have put an early end to our last flu season."

This means that preventive measures, such as social distancing, wearing a mask and frequent hand washing, will not only continue to be important, but likely will come with added benefit this flu season.

But, there's still an extra flu-specific precaution Dr. Long strongly recommends:

"We don't have a vaccine yet for COVID-19, but we do have a vaccine for the flu," says Dr. Long. "It's always really important to get your flu shot every year, but it's increasingly important to take this extra step during this pandemic."

Is it safe to get a flu shot during the COVID-19 pandemic?

According to Dr. Long, getting a flu shot is safe, pandemic or not, for the majority of people.

If you have a severe, life-threatening allergy to an ingredient in the flu vaccine — which is very rare — or a baby under 6 months of age, seek guidance from your doctor or pediatrician before getting vaccinated.

"Unless you fall into one of those categories, get vaccinated in September, before flu season typically begins," recommends Dr. Long. "Just be sure that you're getting an age-appropriate flu vaccination (for instance, adults over 65 will need a high-dose or adjuvant-boosted version of the vaccine), as well as understand that it takes about two weeks for the vaccine to take full effect."

But, even if you don't manage to get your flu shot in September or October, it's never too late to benefit from the flu vaccine. Flu season can linger into late April or May.

Some people may be worried that getting a flu shot may make you more susceptible to catching another illness, such as COVID-19. Don't be.

"The flu vaccine and your immune system don't work that way," says Dr. Long. "It's completely safe to get a flu vaccine during this pandemic. In fact, it's one of the best things you can do for your health."

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