by Anita Gash BA, MPA and Robert Chang MD
The 2020-21 flu vaccines are now available. Each year, the flu season varies in duration and severity, starting anytime in late fall, peaking in winter, to continue usually through the spring. Because of expected increases in respiratory infections this year, the CDC recommends everyone 6 months of age and older obtain an annual flu shot by the end of October. However, as long as flu viruses are circulating, a flu shot can be given even as late as early spring, at the end of the influenza season.
Influenza viruses (type A or B) and the virus that causes COVID-19 (SARS-CoV-2) will both be circulating at the same time. Both influenza and COVID-19 are easily transmitted respiratory infections that share some of the same symptoms and cannot be distinguished early in illness without testing for both viruses. It’s even possible to be co-infected with influenza and COVID-19 viruses simultaneously. Facial coverings, social distancing, and hand hygiene are effective in decreasing transmission for both viruses. Getting the flu vaccine will not protect you against COVID-19 but it will decrease your risk of becoming infected with the flu. Those infected with influenza despite being vaccinated will have a less severe illness and less need for office visits or hospitalizations for severe influenza. Thus, getting your flu shot will also help to conserve healthcare resources like hospital beds, PPE, and ventilators. Last season, with only 50% of the US population receiving the flu vaccine, at least 410,000 people were hospitalized with influenza.
People at the highest risk of serious flu complications include young children, seniors greater than 65 years of age, pregnant women, and people with certain chronic health conditions like asthma, diabetes, or chronic heart and lung disease. In general, vaccinating younger adults and children appears to also provide benefits for older adults in the same community. Vaccination is also important for health care workers and household caregivers who may spread flu to infants or people at risk of severe illness. This is especially true for workers and caregivers in long-term care facilities where many of the residents are most vulnerable to flu and COVID-19.
There are multiple flu vaccines available now. Unfortunately, none offer complete prevention from infection. However, seniors have benefited in past years from a high-dose vaccine with more effective and more durable coverage. Despite having 4 times the number of viral antigens in the high dose, compared with the standard formula, no difference in vaccine-related adverse effects have been shown after careful studies.
For more information about the types of vaccines available, visit www.vaccinefinder.org.
Also visit Frequently Asked Influenza Questions:2020-2021 Season at https://www.cdc.gov/flu/season/faq-flu-season-2021.
Always consult your doctor if you have special health issues or concerns about the flu vaccine.