The 2019-2020 flu season killed approximately 22,000 people in the U.S., out of about 38 million cases, according to the Centers for Disease Control. This year, the coronavirus pandemic has killed more than 216,000 of the 7.9 million people infected, as of Oct. 15, with cases and deaths rising each day.
While researchers are working to develop a vaccine for COVID-19, a flu vaccine has been available for years and is available now in preparation for the upcoming flu season. A season which, if people do not follow protocols, may be tough, in light of two active deadly viruses spreading throughout the country, said Dr. Greg McNamara, a county Public Health physician and family medical doctor at the Little Falls Family Medical Center.
“The influenza symptoms are the same as COVID, so if you end up getting influenza you’re going to have to get tested for COVID and then you’re going to have to quarantine in your home until your COVID test comes back which could be five to seven days,” McNamara said.
The current COVID-19 precautions to wear a mask, social distance, wash hands thoroughly and often as well as sanitizing surfaces may help with the upcoming flu season, he said, since the flu and COVID-19 spread in similar ways. But, since there is a vaccine for the flu, McNamara suggests everyone that can get it, should.
“Why would you risk getting the flu and then on top of that getting coronavirus? That would be crazy. I just can’t imagine how sick people would be. That’s the main reason why we want people to get this vaccine is because we have this other virus going around that we really don’t have a vaccine for yet and don’t really have a good treatment for it either,” he said.
The Centers for Disease Control does state that it is possible to have influenza and other viruses at the same time, including COVID-19, and they are currently researching how common that is.
McNamara also suggested that the flu shot could potentially offer some level of immunity to the coronavirus as well, since they are both viruses, but that is yet to be confirmed.
“Anything we can do to stimulate a person’s immune system against viruses is going to be helpful,” he said.
Influenza, commonly referred to as the flu, is a respiratory illness caused by either Influenza type A or B, which can range from mild illness to severe illness and even death, said Rachel Young, a registered nurse for Essentia Health Clinic in Pierz.
“The flu vaccine we provide out of our clinic is a quadrivalent vaccine, so that means it covers four different strains of the flu and typically it covers two strains of influenza A and two strains of influenza B,” she said.
The flu vaccine is created by estimating which strains will be most prominent for the upcoming flu season. McNamara said scientists look to the southern hemisphere, which sees winter and its flu season prior to the north, and determine which strains will go into a vaccine.
Young, along with her children and her husband get a flu vaccine every year, she said.
Both Young and McNamara suggest all people from age 6 months to end of life should get the flu vaccine to protect themselves. With the exception of a severe egg allergy and those who have been diagnosed with the immune disorder Guillain-Barré syndrome. However, both medical professionals noted that even those with severe egg allergies can find an egg-free vaccine.
If it is their first flu vaccine, young children under the age of 8 will receive two half doses of the vaccine, four weeks apart, as their immune system responds better to that system. After that, they will receive a single dose, as will adults until the age of 65, Young said. Those over 65 will receive a high dose flu vaccine, which Young said has four times the amount of antigens to help those older adults with weakened immune systems prevent and fight the flu.
As myths about the flu vaccine are debunked and more people seek education on it, McNamara said he sees more and more people getting vaccinated each year. Young also mentioned, this year specifically, she’s seen a lot of flu vaccinations go out.
“You cannot get sick from the flu vaccine,” she said. I think some people misinterpret that and are maybe just experiencing side effects because side effects can include a low grade fever and having general we say ‘Malaise’ a general not feeling well. Maybe it’s some muscle aches.”
Less than 1% of people who are vaccinated have flu-like symptoms from the vaccine, Young said. And the majority, 15% to 20% have redness or soreness of the injection site. Any symptoms after a few days are likely not from the shot itself, she said. And someone cannot get the flu from the flu shot.
“The flu vaccine takes two weeks to build up an immune response, so if someone has a flu shot on Monday and then on Wednesday comes in contact with somebody who had influenza and then they get sick, it’s not because of the flu vaccine,” Young said. “Of course there’s always a risk of side effects. There’s risk to anything we do in our lives, but the risks are fairly minimal for the flu vaccine.”
Although the flu shot is not 100% effective, and may be as low as 30% effective, both Young and McNamara said that any protection is better than nothing. And even if someone gets the flu after the flu shot, it’s very likely they will reduce the time they are sick as well as the severity of the illness.
“That’s why it’s so important for people to get their flu shot, because yes it’s not 100% effective but it does offer you partial immunity,” McNamara said.
The Essentia Health clinic and the Family Medical Center both have appointments available for flu vaccines, as well as local pharmacies that may also accept walk-ins. Wherever someone goes, Young and McNamara strongly encourage a flu vaccine.
Quoting her chief medical officers at Essentia Health, Young said this year it is especially important to get a vaccine to take possible strain off of the health care system and supplies so they can be used to fight COVID-19.
McNamara stressed that using a mask is an important part of preventing COVID-19 from spreading, and that most medical professionals would agree. He’s hoping the mask mandate helps prevent the spread of both influenza and COVID-19.
One reason the flu itself doesn’t call for mask wearing is because there is a vaccine and medication to reduce flu symptoms, McNamara said. But the coronavirus is different.
“There’s a lot of people out there who feel it is their right not to wear a mask, and I say to them: it is not your right to drive drunk. There is a law against driving drunk, and why is that? Because you can kill someone. It’s the same thing with wearing a mask. Why do you need to wear a mask? Because you may kill someone if you don’t,” he said.
McNamara said it’s frustrating for “most of us physicians” seeing people disregard mask requirements. He urged people to think of the elderly, their own family members, and people who have chronic health issues.
“They need to wear a mask and quit being selfish and thinking it’s their right not to wear one,” McNamara said.