As summer wanes and fall is just around the corner, so is the 2020-2021 flu season.
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 handwashing, social distancing – is what is going to protect many people from the flu this year,” says Dr. Armando Paez of Baystate Medical Center.
Flu shots are the best protection against the flu
“But, the best protection of all is to get your flu shot each year,”says Dr. Paez.
According to Dr. Robert Redfield, virologist and director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “this could be the worst fall from a public health perspective that we’ve ever had.” Flu season usually begins in the fall around October, but doesn’t peak until December through February. It can sometimes last until May.
For the 2020-2021 season, the flu vaccines were updated to better match viruses expected to be circulating in the United States.
Along with other health officials, Redfield worries that there could be a possible widespread “second wave” of COVID-19 coinciding with the flu. That’s why getting your flu shot this year is more important than ever before.
Dealing with both flu and COVID-19
“Having two or more viruses circulating this season including flu and SARSCoV2, the virus behind COVID-19, is troubling,” says Dr. Paez.
During last year’s flu season – which lasted from October through April – there were an estimated 39,000,000 to 56,000,000 reported flu illnesses, with between 24,000 and 62,000 deaths in the United States. Because influenza surveillance does not capture all cases of flu that occur in the U.S., CDC provides these estimated ranges to better reflect the larger burden of influenza.
When should you get a flu shot?
“It’s important to realize that it can take up to two weeks for the vaccine to build up antibodies to protect you from the flu,” says Dr. Paez.
With the flu season just around the corner, you should get vaccinated sooner than later. September and October are good times to get vaccinated.
Who should get the flu vaccine?
All persons ages 6 month and older should be vaccinated against the flu, especially pregnant women and people with chronic health conditions.
Groups that should be especially concerned with getting the flu shot include:
Young children and people with chronic conditions
Vaccination is particularly important for younger children who are at high risk for serious flu complications. The flu can also aggravate and worsen chronic conditions such as heart disease, diabetes and asthma.
“Young children and children with risk factors including asthma are at highest risk for developing severe complications of flu, such as bacterial pneumonia and breathing difficulties that require hospitalization. This makes getting the flu vaccine all the more important since the prevalence of asthma in Springfield and western Massachusetts is among the highest in the entire United States,” says Dr. Donna Fisher of Baystate Children’s Hospital.
Children between 6 months and 8 years of age who have never received at least two doses of flu vaccine at any point in time during their lives (not necessarily during the same flu season) need two doses of flu vaccine – given at least four weeks apart – to be fully protected from flu.
According to the CDC and American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), eligible children older than 2 years have the option of getting either FluMist or the shot without one type being preferred over the other.
People who have had COVID-19
Yet another concern, according to Dr. Paez, “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.”
Adults 65 years and older
There are two new vaccines this season for adults 65 years and older (Fluzone High Dose® and FLUAD). Receiving one of these may provide better protection against the flu than the regular vaccine. If these vaccines are not available from your provider, doctors recommend getting the regular vaccine.
Who shouldn’t get the vaccine?
Children younger than 6 months and those with severe, life-threatening allergies to flu vaccine and any of its ingredients should not get the flu shot.
Options for those with egg allergies
While it has been widely promoted over the years that those who are allergic to eggs should not get the flu vaccine, the CDC has relaxed some of its recommendations depending on the severity of your allergy.
There are two vaccines licensed for use that are manufactured without the use of eggs and are considered egg-free:
- Flublok Quadrivalent (licensed for use in adults 18 years and older)
- Flucelvax Quadrivalent (licensed for use in people 4 years and older).
“Because these doses should be given at least four weeks apart, it’s a good idea to begin the vaccination process right now,” says Dr. Fisher. “While some people might suggest waiting until later on to get your children vaccinated, immunizing before the end of October is the safest option.”
Can the flu shot give you the flu?
Dr. Paez says he is always asked by those skeptical about getting vaccinated: “Can the flu shot can give you the flu?” The answer is “No,” he said.
”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.
And, even if you do get the flu after being vaccinated, a CDC-supported study published in Vaccine (conducted over multiple flu seasons) shows that getting a flu shot lessened the risk of severe flu among adults, including reducing the risk of hospitalization and admission to the intensive care unit (ICU), and also lessened the severity of illness.
Can the flu shot protect you from COVID-19?
This year he is being asked another important question: Can the flu shot protect you from COVID-19?
“Unfortunately the answer is also ‘no,’ he said, “but we’re hopeful for a vaccine against COVID-19 early next year or sooner.
Schedule Your Flu Shot
“Remember, it’s never too late to get your flu shot,” says Dr. Paez. The best time, however, is before flu viruses begin spreading in the community around the end of October.
Flu vaccination in July or August is not recommended as it can result in reduced protection against the flu late in the season. “On the other hand, it should be offered even late in the season as it can still offer protection,” said Dr. Paez.
Contact your primary care provider or an urgent care center to schedule your flu shot.
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