Why flu vaccines are more important than ever in this pandemic

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As the number of COVID-19 cases continues to increase exponentially across the country, influenza (flu) season is upon us. With over 220,000 coronavirus-induced deaths in the United States since the start of this pandemic, we must prepare ourselves for a difficult winter with no end in sight. While implementing universal mask-wearing and social distancing is essential to mitigate this senseless loss of life, we must also focus on reducing the rate of other preventable illnesses such as the flu. Hospitals across the nation are already describing bed shortages, and medical professionals are expressing concerns of a scenario similar to, and perhaps even more dire than the one faced at the onset of this public health crisis as we enter this year’s flu season.

In the Spring of 2020, hospitals canceled elective procedures, and many states instituted shelter in place orders to offset the anticipated burden on the health care system. However, 8 months later, business has resumed in the “new normal,” and hospitals are now at near-capacity for COVID-19- and non-COVID-19-related procedures and diagnoses. Now, rising COVID-19 cases combined with the influenza season may contribute to a hospitalization surge. As initial flu and COVID-19 symptoms are similar, COVID-19 testing rates will also increase, likely contributing to shortages in testing equipment similar to that experienced early on in the pandemic. The widely available and safe flu vaccines can decrease rates of flu-related hospitalizations, can lower the burden on the health care system, and significantly lower chances of disease-related complications and deaths.

In past years, on average fewer than half of Americans received a seasonal flu shot. This year the vaccination rate needs to be higher. The vaccine can prevent the recipient from contracting the flu, or significantly reduce the severity of the disease, and vaccinated adults who get sick with the flu are 82 percent less likely to be admitted to the ICU. Since influenza has affected 9-45 million people in the US annually since 2010, getting a flu shot this year is essential to protect yourself and help others by reducing the chance of being hospitalized and thus further overwhelming the health care system.

By receiving the flu shot this year, you are not only protecting yourself from influenza but also from potentially developing concurrent flu and COVID-19 infection.  Influenza weakens your immune system and increases the chances of contracting simultaneous diseases such as COVID-19, a combination of which may seriously damage your lungs and kidneys and may even lead to other complications, including death.

While, thus far, COVID-19 has not been shown to have a significant risk of mortality in children, influenza can make some children very sick. Among children younger than five, there have been 7,000-26,000 flu-related hospitalizations annually since 2010. However, vaccinated children are 50 percent less likely to be hospitalized and significantly less likely to have serious complications. And with the ongoing pandemic, hospital visitors’ restrictions could make an already stressful situation worse if a flu diagnosis requires hospitalization.

Ideally, the fall is the best time to get vaccinated to achieve immunity, but even a shot later in the season can provide protection. The vaccine supply this year was increased from the typical 500,000 adult doses distributed by CDC to more than 9 million doses. This will allow those who lost their jobs during the pandemic and may no longer have insurance to still get vaccinated. For example, in Chicago, more than 50 community clinics offer flu shots for no out-of-pocket cost.

To be sure, some people feel hesitant to receive the flu vaccine due to certain side effects. Possible side effects of a flu shot are mild, such as redness or soreness at the injection site, and, occasionally, mild flu-like symptoms. But it is important to remember that although the vaccine may result in mild feelings of malaise and other symptoms, the vaccine can not cause the flu. The vaccines are made with either killed or weakened live viruses that do not cause illness but help your immune system develop antibodies that are able to destroy the virus if you are exposed. An often-quoted but debunked case series led to the false belief that certain vaccines cause autism. More specifically, it was believed a certain component of vaccines, thimerosal, was the culprit. Thimerosal does not cause autism and the previous study that claimed this false information had been widely disproven. Regardless of this fact, 87 percent of projected vaccine supply this year will be thimerosal-free or thimerosal-reduced. While the flu vaccine is not 100 percent effective, it still significantly decreases the flu rate in the population and to be most effective, the majority of the country will need to receive it.

The flu vaccine can strengthen your immune system, prevent the disease spread among those closest to you, protect your children, and reduce the health care system’s burden. Protecting ourselves and others as we traverse a pandemic is paramount in saving lives and keeping our communities safe and healthy. Along with our ongoing initiatives through Covid Rapid Response Team Chicago to maintain an adequate supply of PPE, host blood drives, and perform screenings in homeless shelters, increasing the rate of flu vaccinations is essential to protect the community. Our country has suffered more than enough during this COVID-19 pandemic – do your part and protect yourself, your loved ones, and our health care heroes this fall by getting your flu shot.

Marina Lentskevich, Syeda Akila Ally, Diana Ioana Rapolti, and Elsa Nico are medical students. Shikha Jain is a hematology-oncology physician who blogs at her self-titled site, Dr. Shikha Jain.  She can be reached on Twitter @ShikhaJainMD.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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