It’s hard to imagine it in the midst of our recent heat waves, but fall is only a month away, and with the fall comes the flu. We know, we know: Who’s even thinking about the flu and its vaccine when the COVID-19 Delta variant is making its rounds? Well, we are, and you should be too.
While 2020 was the most mild flu season we’ve seen in quite some time, that was due in large part to widespread mask usage and adherence to social distancing. Despite the rise of the Delta and a newly issued mask mandate, we’ve seen regulations relaxed and more people gathering together in public settings. For that reason, we expect a sharp increase in flu cases.
At a time when hospitalizations due to COVID-19 are on the rise, the health-care system can’t afford to see a rush of flu patients competing for space with COVID patients.
Why you need the flu shot
First thing’s first: If you haven’t done so yet, get your COVID-19 vaccination. It’s the most important thing you can do as we approach fall and try to stave off another wave that could ruin everyone’s holidays. If you’ve still got questions or concerns, check out our recent post about myths surrounding the vaccines.
That being said, it’s as important as ever to get your flu shot this year, even if you’ve been vaccinated for COVID-19.
It varies, but flu season typically ramps up sometime in October. September is the best time to get your flu shot, and you really should have one before the end of October, but you can get one any time throughout the winter. Flu cases usually peak between December and February.
While most people recover within one to two weeks, thousands of people with the flu develop potentially life-threatening complications such as pneumonia or brain infections each year. The flu also leads to between 140,000 and 810,000 hospitalizations annually, and between 12,000 and 61,000 deaths.
The effectiveness of the flu vaccine varies every year depending on which of the many different flu viruses are circulating. However, while flu vaccination might not be 100% effective, it is still the single best way to prevent the flu and flu-related complications.
The flu and COVID-19
Both the flu and COVID-19 can wreak havoc on the immune system. Having one of the viruses makes you more likely to get the other. If you get them at the same time, you have a higher risk of severe or long-lasting symptoms, or even death.
Patients who have received an influenza vaccine, or flu shot, were found to have 24% lower odds of testing positive for coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), according to a recent study published in the American Journal of Infection Control. Additionally, patients who were vaccinated against influenza and tested positive for COVID-19 were more likely to have better clinical outcomes than those who were not vaccinated.
The study authors are not yet sure why people who had been vaccinated against the flu fared better than people who had not been vaccinated against it.
“It is possible that [people] who receive their flu vaccine are also people who are practicing more [physical] distancing and following [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] guidelines,” suggested Dr. Marion Hofmann, co-author of the study, adding that the result could also be attributable to “a direct biological effect of the flu vaccine on the immune system relevant for the fight against SARS-CoV-2 virus.”
Though it was originally believed that one should wait 14 days after receiving the COVID-19 vaccine before receiving any other vaccine, including the flu shot, that idea has since been debunked. It is now believed to be completely safe to receive a flu shot and COVID-19 vaccine simultaneously or within days of each other.
There is no combination vaccine currently approved by the FDA, though Novavax is working on developing one and has seen success in trials. The research could carry implications for future COVID-19 booster shots, Gregory A. Poland, MD, an internist and part of the Vaccine Research Group at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN, says.
“Overall, the study results are reassuring and of potential practical importance if we have to give booster doses. It will make it easier to give them both in one visit,” said Poland, who was not affiliated with the research.
Will we need booster shots?
For several months, vaccine makers have said they expect that fully inoculated people will need an extra dose of their vaccines to maintain protection over time and to fend off new coronavirus variants.
A growing list of governments including Chile, Germany and Israel are offering booster doses to older citizens and people with weak immune systems in light of the Delta variant. On Aug. 12, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration authorized a booster dose of vaccines from Pfizer Inc. and Moderna Inc. for people with compromised immune systems.
The vaccine makers say evidence of waning antibody levels in vaccinated people after six months, as well as an increasing rate of breakthrough infections in countries hit by the Delta variant, support the need for booster shots.
Some early data suggests the Moderna vaccine, which delivers a higher dose at the outset, may be more durable than Pfizer’s shot, but more research is needed to determine whether that is influenced by the age or underlying health of the people vaccinated. It is still unknown how many people will need boosters, and how often.
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