It’s always a good idea to get your flu shot. But as the 2020 flu season approaches, Matthew Sims, M.D., Ph.D., director of Infectious Disease Research at Beaumont Health, wants you to know, now more than ever, why it’s so important to arm yourself with the influenza vaccine.
“There is great concern that these two infections, both respiratory in nature, easily spread and requiring similar treatments, could break out at the same time and that individuals who test positive for one, may be more susceptible to contracting the other,” Dr. Sims said. “By itself, the flu can be extremely taxing to individuals and health care systems, but in combination with a second surge of COVID-19, the risk is that much greater. There’s also concern one infection will make individuals that much more vulnerable to the other, worsening outcomes.”
Experts are calling this perfect storm of events a “Twindemic.”
On the plus side, the flu vaccine may provide added defense against COVID-19.
“Although it is preliminary and not definitive, there is some data that suggests the flu vaccine provides some protection against COVID-19,” Dr. Sims aid. “We aren’t exactly sure why it works. It could have something to do with priming the immune system to respond to COVID-19 and boosting immunity. It’s certainly not going to hurt.”
To maximize protection during the high-traffic months of November through March, Dr. Sims usually schedules his own flu shot in late October but given how complicated things are this season he’s already received it.
The flu vaccine contains bits of three or four different strains of flu which scientists believe will most likely be circulating this season. Even if the vaccine is not an exact match, it triggers the body to produce an immune response that limits severity of illness.
"People say: ‘I took it one year and I got the flu anyways’," Dr. Sims said. "But few people say, 'My loved one or I got the flu shot and then I was on a ventilator with pneumonia.' Even when it doesn't prevent the illness, it often lessens the symptoms and it’s still the best tool we have at containing the damage."
Although last year's flu season was relatively mild, it still resulted in between 39 and 56 million cases, approximately 740,000 hospitalizations, and between 24,000 and 62,000 flu deaths, according to preliminary CDC estimates.
In the most severe recent flu season, 2017-2018, the CDC reported the flu vaccine only had an overall estimated effectiveness of 38% across three strains. Nonetheless, the CDC estimated that the imperfect vaccine still prevented 7.1 million illnesses, 3.7 million medical visits, 109,000 hospitalizations and 8,000 deaths.
Fortunately, the U.S. appears to have an abundant supply of the vaccine this year. While the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention usually purchases a half-million doses of flu vaccine for uninsured adults, for the 2020/2021 season, it increased its order by 9.3 million doses.
Flu shots are available through primary care doctors, at all Beaumont Urgent Care locations and various drug stores including CVS, Walgreen, as well as some Meijer and Kroger grocery stores.
Fighting COVID-19 earlier in the year, Sims said, has taught the Beaumont health care team a lot about how best to treat patients with all kinds of respiratory infections.
“A lot of tough things were thrown at us this spring, but we are now that much better prepared to fight and do well in this battle,” Dr. Sims said.
Regarding the flu shot, the CDC recommends the following:
- CDC recommends everyone 6 months of age and older get annual flu vaccine by the end of October.
- Vaccination of high-risk persons is especially important to decrease their risk of severe flu illness.
- People at high risk of serious flu complications include young children, pregnant women, people with certain chronic health conditions like asthma, diabetes or heart and lung disease and people 65 years and older. Many people at higher risk from flu also seem to be at higher risk from COVID-19.
- Vaccination also is important for health care workers, and other people who live with or care for people at higher risk to keep from spreading flu to them. This is especially true for people who work in long-term care facilities, which are home to many of the people most vulnerable to flu and COVID-19.
- Children younger than 6 months are at high risk of serious flu illness, but are too young to be vaccinated. People who care for infants should be vaccinated instead.
The CDC further recommends the following, everyday preventive actions to stop the spread of germs:
- Avoid close contact with people who are sick.
- If you are sick, limit contact with others as much as possible to keep from infecting them.
- Cover coughs and sneezes.
- Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze. Throw the tissue in the trash after you use it.
- Wash your hands often with soap and water. If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand rub.
- Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth. Germs spread this way.
- Clean and disinfect surfaces and objects that may be contaminated with viruses that cause flu.