Fears about a potential “twindemic” have inspired a call to arms for us all to roll up our sleeves and get a flu shot. Experts say lives may very well depend on it.
This fall and winter will be the first time we see both viruses coincide in a significant way. The COVID-19 pandemic first struck last winter, just as the flu season was coming to an end.
Early this year, many healthcare providers considered the flu a far bigger threat because the U.S. had just endured an especially brutal flu season, with 56 million infections and as many as 62,000 deaths.
Six months later, a new flu season is on the horizon. While COVID-19 is proving deadlier, the flu remains a threat. Combined, the two illnesses could put an incredible burden on the healthcare system.
“This is the first time where we will see both the flu virus and COVID-19 at the same time,” says Kyle Oholendt, MD, internal medicine physician and pediatrician on the medical staff at Methodist Charlton Medical Center. “A flu shot can help.”
HOW A FLU SHOT HELPS
Each year, fewer than half of Americans get a flu shot. If enough people get vaccinated, it will alleviate a major strain that hits doctors’ offices and emergency rooms every fall.
“There is good data to support that getting a flu shot helps to reduce the risk of hospitalization, intensive care unit stays, and death related to getting the flu,” Dr. Oholendt says.
Both infections share many of the same symptoms, most notably cough, fever, sore throat, and fatigue. Even a loss of taste or smell commonly associated with COVID-19 can crop up in flu cases.
The worst-case scenario is getting both infections simultaneously. Catching the flu could also put you at higher risk for developing an especially severe case of COVID-19.
And you shouldn’t discount a flu shot just because it’s not 100% effective.
“Even if someone gets the flu after taking the shot, it is more likely to be mild,” Dr. Oholendt says. “That’s a great reason to get it.”
WORTH THE RISK
The people at the greatest risk for flu tend to be the most vulnerable to COVID-19, too. This includes anyone over age 65 and those with chronic health conditions like asthma, diabetes, and heart disease. Obesity also raises your risk for both infections.
These high-risk populations have been urged to shelter-in-place as much as possible because of COVID-19. Getting a flu shot is a valid reason to break quarantine, doctors say.
“The risk of pneumonia, hospitalization, or death related to the flu is unfortunately high for those vulnerable populations,” Dr. Oholendt says. “This risk is likely higher than the risk of going to the doctor’s office or a pharmacy to get a shot.”
WHEN TO GET A FLU SHOT
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends getting the flu shot by the end of October, and that guidance hasn’t changed amid the pandemic.
But it’s important to remember that a vaccine doesn’t provide immediate protection. It stimulates an immune response in the body that typically takes two weeks to produce the necessary antibodies. And because children 6 months to 8 years old often need two doses spaced four weeks apart, parents will need to plan ahead.
“I prefer that my patients get the shot now and be covered,” Dr. Oholendt says, “rather than try and wait and forget or get infected.”
Older adults who get vaccinated especially early in the flu season may want to consider getting a second shot later on, for an extra dose of protection.
They should also consider a high-dose vaccine, which contains four times the amount of antigen, or a shot known as an adjuvanted flu vaccine, which contains an ingredient that promotes a better immune response.
WHAT TO EXPECT THIS FALL
There’s no telling what the fall will bring, but that doesn’t mean we’re helpless to keep COVID-19 and the flu at bay.
Mask rules and social distancing helped flatten the COVID-19 curve after a summer surge, and the same precautions should help stop the flu from spreading.
But there’s a proven way to prevent the flu that doesn’t yet exist for the coronavirus.
“As we all know, we don’t yet have a vaccine to prevent COVID-19,” Dr. Oholendt says. “We’ve had an effective vaccine for the flu since 1945. And we should all make use of it.”