By Dr. Armando Paez
While experts cannot predict the severity of one flu season from another, this upcoming season will be unprecedented and can pose a severe threat due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
The very protection advice we have been stressing for COVID-19 — wearing a mask, frequent hand washing, social distancing — is what is going to protect many people from the flu this year. But the best protection of all is to get your flu shot each year.
Flu season usually begins in the fall around October, but doesn’t peak until December through February. It can sometimes last until May. Because there could be a possible second wave of COVID-19 coinciding with the flu, getting your flu shot this year is more important than ever before.
For the 2020-21 season, the flu vaccines were updated to better match viruses expected to be circulating in the U.S.
Already in advance of the onset of the 2020-21 flu season, the CDC is reminding people to get vaccinated sooner than later, with October being a good time to get vaccinated. It’s important to realize it can take up to two weeks for the vaccine to build up antibodies to protect you from the flu.
Once again, the CDC recommends all people be vaccinated against the flu, especially pregnant women and people with chronic health conditions. For the 2020-21 season, the flu vaccines were updated to better match viruses expected to be circulating in the U.S. The CDC has stated that providers may administer any licensed, age-appropriate flu vaccine with no preference for any one vaccine over another, including the shot or nasal spray.
People who should not get the flu vaccine include children younger than 6 months and those with severe, life-threatening allergies to flu vaccine and any of its ingredients.
In addition to the elderly, vaccination is particularly important for younger children who are also at high risk for serious flu complications, as well as those with heart disease, and pregnant women. The most important complication that can affect both high-risk adults and children is pneumonia. The flu can also aggravate and worsen chronic conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, and asthma.
Also, if you have a weakened immune system after contracting COVID-19, it can leave you at risk for getting a more severe case of the flu, or vice versa.
I’m always asked by those skeptical about getting vaccinated, “can the flu shot give you the flu?” The answer is no. This year, I’m also being asked, “can the flu shot protect you from COVID-19?” Unfortunately, the answer is also no, but we’re hopeful for a vaccine against COVID-19 early next year or sooner.
While the flu vaccine is not 100% effective, the CDC noted that recent studies show that flu vaccination reduces the risk of flu illness by between 40% and 60% among the overall population during seasons when most circulating flu viruses are well-matched to the flu vaccine.
Remember, it’s never too late to get your flu shot, preferably before flu viruses begin spreading in the community around the end of October.
Dr. Armando Paez is chief of Infectious Diseases at Baystate Medical Center.