Flu Shots Take On New Urgency to Help Avoid “Twindemic”
4 MINUTE READ
A bad flu season on top of the COVID-19 pandemic is reason to worry. Here are answers to your questions about flu shots and staying healthy.
By Dr. Don Liss, Vice President & Chief Medical Officer
The only thing worse than one devastating viral epidemic is two.
That’s the concern as we enter this year’s flu season with the COVID-19 pandemic still strong. A “twindemic” of influenza and COVID-19 could overwhelm an already overburdened hospital system this fall and winter.
There is a bright spot: we do have flu shots. But this potential solution only works if people choose to get vaccinated. At a recent panel of health care, pharmacy and public health leaders convened by Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey (Horizon BCBSNJ), we explored creative ways to boost vaccination rates. From proactively notifying patients to setting up drive-through flu shot clinics, the health care system in New Jersey is working hard to avoid a worst-case scenario.
Here’s what you need to know about getting a flu shot this season, so the pandemic doesn’t end up becoming a “twindemic.”
Who needs to get the flu vaccine?
Everyone over the age of 6 months should get a flu shot, with rare exceptions. This is particularly true for essential workers, those with underlying conditions like asthma or heart disease and those at higher risk — including very young children and pregnant women.
You cannot get influenza from getting the flu vaccine. In fact, vaccines are extremely safe, with no adverse effects in most people. Some people may have mild symptoms like a sore arm or fatigue after getting the flu shot, but these usually go away within a few days.
People with concerns around the safety of the flu vaccine due to special circumstances should talk to their doctor. There are even versions of the vaccine made for people allergic to eggs (some vaccines are made using chicken eggs) or afraid of needles. A nasal vaccine is available for people ages 2 to 49, unless they are pregnant or have certain medical conditions.
When should you get the flu shot?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that most people get the flu shot in September or October. That’s because the flu season usually starts in mid- to late October, and it takes about two weeks for a person to achieve full immunity.
Now that the flu shot is readily available in doctor’s offices and pharmacies, it makes sense to get it as soon as possible. But even if you miss this time frame, you should still get one since the flu season stretches into the spring.
Adults over 65 and those with compromised immune systems are advised to wait until at least mid-September so that the vaccine’s protection lasts the entire flu season.
Will the flu shot protect you from COVID-19?
Unfortunately, no. They are two separate diseases. However, it’s worth noting that flu and COVID-19 can share many symptoms, including fever, chills, cough, sore throat, muscle or body aches, headaches and fatigue.
However, if you’re protected from the flu, you likely won’t have to seek treatment at a hospital, meaning you’re less likely to encounter patients who have COVID-19 and could spread it to you.
Why should you get a flu shot?
A flu shot can prevent you from catching and spreading the influenza virus, which can make you feel miserable for a week or two. Even if you get the flu despite being vaccinated, the vaccine can also lessen how severe and how long your illness could be.
For many people, the flu can have serious consequences. Preliminary CDC data for the 2019-2020 flu season found the flu led to as many as 740,000 hospitalizations and 62,000 deaths.
More than 45 percent of the U.S. population got vaccinated last flu season. If enough people get vaccinated this year, it could potentially head off a “twindemic” of COVID-19 and flu and relieve pressure on the health care system.
Will there be enough flu vaccine for those who want it?
The likely answer is yes. To prepare for a larger number of people seeking flu vaccinations this year, private manufacturers estimate that they will produce as many as 198 million flu shots. This figure represents about a 15 percent increase over the record number delivered last year.
More shots could be made if there’s demand. But if a COVID-19 vaccine is approved, some producers of flu shots could be competing against those scrambling to deliver doses against the coronavirus.
Because we don’t honestly know what this season is going to look like, the best advice is to get your flu shot as soon as you can.
How effective will the flu shot be?
This year’s flu vaccine was designed toward the end of the last flu season, based on the four most common flu strains circulating at that time. It’s assumed these will be the same strains that people will face once the next flu season arrives. The vaccines were made by private manufacturers during the spring and summer.
But strains can change over time, sometimes making the vaccine less effective. Usually, the U.S. flu vaccine is about 40 to 60 percent effective on average. According to the CDC, this means the vaccine reduces your chances by 40 to 60 percent that, if you were exposed to the flu, you would have symptoms severe enough to visit a doctor or hospital.
Where can I get a shot?
Even getting a flu shot may look different this year. Many employers may not be sponsoring on-site flu clinics since many people continue to work from home. Instead, employees are encouraged to get shots from their primary care doctors or retail pharmacies and clinics.
During our vaccination summit, we heard from several of these providers about how they’re making it easier and safer to get a flu shot:
- CVS Health allows patients to fill out all paperwork electronically before coming into a pharmacy. They also have dedicated space outside pharmacies to administer vaccines.
- Walgreens is piloting drive-thru flu shot clinics in some parts of the country.
- Medical offices are promoting social distancing by limiting the number of patients in the office or having patients waiting in cars for "curbside" vaccinations.
- Leaders from Summit Medical Group and Hunterdon Healthcare stressed the importance of educating patients about getting their shots and using electronic medical records to identify patients who still need vaccinations.
Horizon BCBSNJ members can receive flu shots at a number of locations in addition to their doctor’s office. Check with an individual location about their procedures for administering flu shots this year.
The flu shot is covered at no-cost to Horizon BCSBNJ members. Make a plan today to get yours and help keep your family and community healthy this season.