As flu season collides with a pandemic, do all you can to protect yourself and your community.

Your Health, Coronavirus Updates, Primary Care | 11 months ago

Why This Year's Flu Vaccine is More Important than Ever

As flu season collides with a pandemic, do all you can to protect yourself and your community.

Even as we continue to protect ourselves against COVID-19 with masks and social distancing, we’re about to face another contagious virus. Flu season doesn’t take a break during a pandemic.

While the rates of death are lower for flu than COVID-19, flu remains a serious threat, especially to vulnerable populations. During last year’s flu season, between 24,000 and 62,000 deaths were attributed to flu in the U.S. (By comparison, the country had about 178,000 deaths related to COVID-19 as of late August.) The flu takes a toll on healthy individuals as well. According to the CDC, about 3 to 11% of individuals will become sick with the flu each year. Cumulatively, Americans miss about 17 million days of work each year because of flu.

Katie Passaretti, MD, medical director of infection prevention at Atrium Health, is among the experts who are encouraging as many people as possible to get a flu vaccine this year to protect themselves and to protect the community. Here, she offers advice about the flu vaccine – why to get it, when to get it, which form to get it in– and dispels a few myths.

Question 1: How is this year’s flu season different than previous years?

Answer 1 | Dr. Passaretti: Not only will we deal with a usual flu season and all of the concerns that come with that, but we’ll also deal with a pandemic. We fully expect increased numbers of people with respiratory illness – some people will have the flu, and some will have COVID-19. Some people may even have both, which could bring higher level of consequences by being dually infected.

Q2: Who should get a flu shot this year?

A2 | Dr. Passaretti: Every single person over the age of six months should get a flu shot. Obviously, some populations are more affected by flu than others, and they should certainly get a flu vaccine to protect themselves – people with chronic medical conditions, at extremes of age and pregnant women. But, just as with COVID-19, the importance of preventing spread from healthy younger adults to older or other individuals at increased risk for hospitalization and even death from flu is important, so I would caution against the mindset that it's only certain populations that need a flu vaccine. We need to do everything we can to prevent both flu and COVID-19, regardless of perceived risk to that individual. This is more about the community working together to protect each other.

Q3: What’s the best way to get a flu vaccine while minimizing exposure risk to COVID-19?

A3 | Dr. Passaretti: Many places are looking at innovative ways of getting you the flu vaccine – drive thru areas for vaccination, etc but you can be seen safely in a medical office or pharmacy. It's just important to wear a mask that covers your entire nose and mouth, avoid going while sick, maintain at least six feet between you and other individuals in the facility and wash your hands regularly.

Q4: When should people get a flu shot?

A4 | Dr. Passaretti: Getting a flu shot period is more important than timing – if you have flexibility, however, consider aiming for late September or early October. That’s the sweet spot to give you maximum protection when you need it most and ensure your flu shot will continue to be effective through the duration of flu season.

Children who have never been vaccinated before will need two flu shots, though, so for children receiving the flu shot for the first time pediatricians recommend start that process in early September.

Q5: Can people get sick from getting a flu vaccine?

A5 | Dr. Passaretti: The traditional flu shot is killed virus, and it cannot make you sick. There are other respiratory viruses that can circulate at the same time as the flu, which can cause confusion. But really, there is no way the flu shot can cause infection.

After a flu shot, some people feel a little muscle soreness, and some people may get a low-grade temperature the next day. But most people who get it, go about their day and they’re just fine.

Q6: Which is better: the flu shot or flu mist?

A6 | Dr. Passaretti: Flu mist is a live inactivated virus and as such  is not recommended for older individuals or people with compromised immune systems.  In prior flu seasons flu mist was shown to be less effective in some populations compared to the flu shot.  For those reasons I generally recommend the flu shot.

Some people have a true fear of needles or a reason they cannot get that flu shot. In those cases, the flu mist is better than not getting anything, as long as you're not highly immunocompromised. In general, though, I guide people to the flu shot.

Q7: If the flu vaccine doesn’t protect against all strains of the flu, is it still worthwhile?

A7 | Dr. Passaretti: Yes. The flu vaccine is scientists’ best guess on what this year’s flu strains will be.  As such it is not perfect however it is the best option for protecting yourself against infection with influenza.  Multiple studies have shown that the flu vaccine can reduce hospitalizations and reduce risk of death in older individuals. Even though it's not 100%, it is protective and effective.

Q8: Some studies have shown that a flu vaccine may lessen the severity of COVID-19. Is that true?

A8 | Dr. Passaretti: We're still navigating COVID-19, so we don't know yet whether flu vaccine or other vaccines can amplify your immune response and provide some protection. I've seen arguments both ways, but time will tell as we navigate this year.

Q8: Considering the dual risk of flu and COVID-19 this fall and winter, should we change how we protect ourselves from a contagious virus?

A8 | Dr. Passaretti: Continue with the current protective measures that we have in place and should be doing all the time: wear a mask that covers your nose and mouth (single layer masks or gaiters seem to provide less protection), stay at least six feet away from people, stay home when sick, wash your hands regularly and avoid group gatherings. These measures are going to stand throughout this entire year, at minimum.

Q9: Do you expect an increase in the number of people who get flu shots this year?

A9 | Dr. Passaretti: I hope so. The flu shot is the best thing that is currently available that we can do to protect ourselves as we enter flu season. My hope is that vaccine rates are higher for all populations.

Getting the facts out about the flu vaccine will continue to be important. We still hear that autism is a concern with vaccines, which has been debunked time and time again. Or we hear that the flu vaccine causes flu. Those messages aren't true, but some people hang on to them. It’s even more important to fight these myths with facts this year.

To schedule a free flu vaccine with Atrium Health, contact your healthcare provider or click for office locations.