In a Year Dominated by COVID Concerns, Flu Shots Still Save Lives

By Dr. Tobias Barker, Chief Medical Officer

At a time when the whole world is focused on the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s easy to lose track of other life-threatening health concerns. Unfortunately, all of the health risks that existed prior to anyone ever hearing of COVID-19 are still very much among us and need to be taken seriously.

Take influenza, for example. Flu season is right around the corner. And it’s just as dangerous as ever. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), roughly 36,000 adults die from the flu each year, in addition to hundreds of children.  The worst recent flu season that hit between 2017 and 2018 saw 61,000 adult deaths.

A challenge is that many Americans have been lulled into thinking the flu is no longer a problem. That’s because last year’s flu season (2020-2021) experienced a record-low number of cases and deaths.  But for good reason. First, a record number of flu vaccinations—193.8 million doses according to the CDC—were given last year to give people a fighting chance.  Second, people of all ages were taking a lot more precautions during the last flu season (which lasts from October to May with peak flu activity happening between December and March). Last year at this time, many employees were working remotely, students were learning virtually, and most people were wearing masks and social distancing.

This year things are different.  Many people are back to work.  Students are largely back in the classroom.  Mask mandates are facing challenges. These factors in combination mean we’re all at greater risk of getting the flu this year and can benefit from the added protection of a flu vaccine.

There are a lot more questions about flu shots this year than ever before given the pandemic and the widely available COVID vaccines.  We’ve attempted to address some of the more common ones in the list below.

Q: If I got the COVID vaccine, do I still need a flu shot?

A: Absolutely.

Q: Does the COVID vaccine provide any protection against the flu?

A: No. Although they are both respiratory illnesses, they are caused by different viruses and, therefore, require different vaccines.

Q: Can I get the COVID vaccine and the flu shot at the same time or do I need to space them out?

A: According to the CDC, there is no harm in getting both vaccines at the same time. Timing is based on personal preference, as some people want to space out the jabs in their arms.

Q: Will the COVID vaccine in any way interfere with the effectiveness of a flu shot?

A: No. There is no effect.

Q: I haven’t heard much about flu cases since last year. Does that mean it’s not as much of a problem?

A: No.  Influenza is still a very serious disease that requires precautions to be taken annually.

Q: When is the best time to get a flu shot?

A: The best time to get a flu shot is between September and November.

Q:  Is it possible to get a flu shot too early?

A:  While it’s still possible to get some benefit from a vaccination regardless of timing, getting a flu shot prior to September is not ideal because the effectiveness of the flu vaccine starts to fade after six months.  So if you get vaccinated too far in advance, you might not have full protection for the entire flu season.

Q:  I got my flu shot last year.  Do I have to get it again this year?

A:  Yes.  The flu virus mutates each year and new vaccines are created to target the most likely strains to cause problems.

Q:  Are all flu shots the same or is it like the different COVID vaccines that each work a bit differently?

A: No, not all flu shots are the same.  There are actually five different types. Visit https://www.cdc.gov/flu/prevent/flushot.htm to learn more.

Q: What are some of the more common myths that you hear about flu shots?

A: People often mistakenly assume that the vaccine either doesn’t work or that it can give you Influenza.  Both of these ideas are false.

Q: How safe are flu shots?

A: Very. They have been around for years and have demonstrated tremendous effectiveness with few side effects.

Q: Should young children be vaccinated?

A: Although children under the age of 12 are still not eligible for a COVID vaccine, it is perfectly safe for children 6 months and older to receive a flu shot.

While it’s always a good idea to get an annual flu shot, this year it’s more important than ever to take precautions against the flu since many hospitals are already near capacity with COVID cases. And with the added risk of the Delta variant spreading, it’s important to stay as healthy as possible and minimize the risk of multiple viruses attacking.

It’s also worth noting that many of the same precautions that help keep adults and children safe from COVID, i.e. frequent handwashing, wearing of masks, and social distancing, are also effective at preventing flu transmission.

So make the effort to keep yourself and your family safe and healthy this flu season and take the shot!