With flu season nearing as COVID-19 continues to spread in many communities, health experts it’s more important than ever to get a flu shot.
Despite declining case numbers and hospitalizations in North Texas, health experts still fear that this flu season — combined with a possible second wave of COVID-19 cases — will overwhelm health care systems.
The concern prompted manufacturers to provide a record of up to 198 million doses of the vaccine, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
While it’s impossible to predict the severity of the flu season, health experts say even a mild one could have devastating effects when combined with the coronavirus.
Here’s what three North Texas health experts said about how to prepare for the flu season, and what to expect this fall.
Who should get a flu shot?
The CDC recommends vaccinations anyone older than 6 months.
It’s especially important for older adults and those who are at a high risk for flu complications. People at a high risk for flu complications include those age 65 and older, pregnant women, and those with underlying medical conditions, including asthma, heart disease and stroke, diabetes, HIV/AIDS, and cancer.
Many of the high-risk conditions for the flu are the same as the high-risk conditions for COVID-19.
“In particular this year, persons especially that have serious high risk conditions and that might be more high risk for complications from the flu” should get vaccinated, said Dr. Philip Huang, Dallas County’s public health director. “The flu vaccine is always good every year, but this year in particular it’s even more important.”
When should you get the flu shot?
The coronavirus pandemic hasn’t changed the CDC recommendation for when to get a flu shot.
The flu season typically starts in October, peaks in December through February, and can run as late as May. The CDC recommends getting vaccinated before the flu spreads, ideally in September.
“My advice is go ahead and get it early,” said Dr. Joseph Chang, chief medical officer of Parkland Health and Hospital System. He said this year’s season is likely to start in the next two to three weeks, and take off in October.
“It’s not like an antibiotic where you just take it and it starts to work instantly,” he said. “It actually works by generating a response in the body. That generally takes a good two to three weeks, so yet more reason to not wait.”
Some children require two doses of the vaccine about a month apart, so health experts recommend start the vaccination process earlier.
Dr. Dawn Johnson, pediatrician at Children’s Health and medical director of the Children’s Health Pediatric Group, said she recommends getting vaccinated in October.
It’s possible for the flu vaccine’s effectiveness to wane over time, so if someone got vaccinated in July or early August, they may not be as protected during the peak of flu season. But she noted that the waning effectiveness of the flu vaccine mainly occurs in older adults.
“We tend to say getting it at any point is better than not getting it,” she said.
The CDC recommends getting a flu shot by the end of October. But even if you miss that deadline, you should still get vaccinated.
Why should you get vaccinated this year?
Health experts’ main fear is a “twindemic” if we have a severe flu season and a second wave of COVID-19 infections.
Thousands of people die and hundreds of thousands are hospitalized from the influenza virus each year, according to the CDC. Even a mild season could severely overwhelm health care systems, health experts say.
The symptoms of the two viruses are very similar. Aside from curbing hospitalizations, flu vaccinations can mean fewer visits to emergency rooms and doctors’ offices, freeing up time and resources for coronavirus patients.
Johnson said that the outbreak’s impact on schools could also drive up health care visits.
“Many schools have protocols that were not in place before about what symptoms children can go to school with that are different than in the past,” she said. “At my son’s school, for example, if the child has a cough or a sore throat, they can’t come to school. In the past, that wasn’t the case. I think some of the health care visits will be driven by our school systems trying to protect teachers, students, and their staff.”
Chang said he has been more concerned about the flu season than he has been about schools or businesses reopening. He said Parkland has been stocking up on supplies like COVID-19 and flu tests, ventilators, IV pumps and personal protective equipment since early April in case we have a severe out break of both viruses this winter.
“The issue is that as winter comes, there are a whole lot of other things that also become issues,” he said. “Community acquired pneumonia goes up in the winter time, complications from heart disease, complications from diabetes all go up during the winter time. It’s going to be a busier time anyway. And then you stack this on top of it, I’m certainly concerned.”
The flu vaccine won’t prevent you from getting COVID-19. But because the symptoms are so similar, a vaccination can help your health care provider differentiate between the two if you do become sick. It can also lessen the flu’s severity if you do catch it.
It’s also possible to get both flu and COVID-19 at the same time. While health experts don’t know if having both viruses will make the effects of either worse, they say it’s not worth the risk.
What can we expect from this flu season?
The impact of the flu season depends both on how many people are vaccinated and the vaccine’s effectiveness is against the strains that end up circulating, Chang said.
That effectiveness varies year to year. Each year, the flu vaccine is made based on the strains that have circulated in other parts of the world during their winter seasons, Chang said.
The flu vaccine is typically between 40% to 60% effective. But that can still make a significant difference, health experts say.
“If you’re getting ready to go out into traffic on Stemmons Freeway, and there was something you could do to decrease your chance of being hit by a car by 50%, would you say, ‘Nah, I don’t want that. I’m just going to be hit 100%,’?” Chang said. “It doesn’t make sense.”
It’s possible the season will be less severe because of mask mandates, social distancing, online learning and business closures that may continue as flu season begins. But there’s no way to be sure, health experts say.
“We hope everyone will keep practicing these prevention methods,” Huang said. “It’s really important for COVID, and if everyone really does that, then that can help also with flu. But it takes everyone being vigilant.”