Coronavirus (Covid-19) and the flu shot: What you need to know

Filed Under: Costs, Patients

- photo by CDC on Unsplash

As the flu season approaches, flu shots are on many people’s minds. Of course I’ll be getting a shot, but when should I get it? Should I get more than one? Where should I go? We asked the experts.

Coronavirus is still running rampant in the U.S. and resources are still stretched thin fighting it; the idea of concurrent flu and Covid outbreaks is frightening.

“[The vaccine] helps to prevent flu,” Dr. Michael Ison, professor of infectious diseases and organ transplantation and medical director of transplant and immunocompromised host infectious diseases service at Northwestern University, told ClearHealthCosts in an email. “And even if you get flu, having received the vaccine reduces severity of illness and significantly reduces risk of hospitalization and death. For older adults, it is also associated with a reduced risk of heart attack and stroke. This year is all the more important because we want to reduce the added burden of flu on the healthcare system.”

Each year, the flu kills an average of 12,000 to 61,000 people in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Influenza is deadly in its own right, and it is hard to know how this year’s strain will interact with Covid. Fortunately, flu vaccines exist, and this year experts are saying that it is more important than ever to get vaccinated.

“This fall, nothing can be more important than to try to increase the American public’s decision to embrace the flu vaccine with confidence,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert Redfield said in an interview with the editor of J.A.M.A. “This is a critical year for us to try to take the flu as much off the table as we can.”

When, where, and how many shots to get?

Flu vaccines are starting to become available at pharmacies and doctors offices. Recognizing that access may be an issue for some in obtaining the vaccine — especially now that some places typically offering the vaccine are experiencing closures or strict social distancing rules — pharmacies and health organizations are trying to play a bigger role in providing vaccines.

According to the New York Times, Walgreens “will be hosting additional off-site flu vaccine clinics in community centers and churches,” and CVS will let  patients  fill out paperwork digitally to reduce contact time. The New York City Department of Health has released an online flu vaccine locator, and the C.D.C. recommends using www.vaccinefinder.org to locate vaccine options near you.

Some doctors, including Dr. Susan Rehm, vice chair at the Cleveland Clinic’s Department of Infectious Diseases, say that people should get the flu vaccine as soon as possible, particularly in case shortages arise from overwhelming demand. Others, according to USA Today, recommend against getting a shot so soon, and suggest that “patients get their flu shot in late September or early October, so protection can last throughout the flu season, which typically ends around March or April. The vaccine lasts about six months.”

The C.D.C. ultimately recommends getting vaccinated no later than the end of October because the vaccine takes a few weeks to become fully effective, but they encourage people to get vaccinated later rather than not at all.

According to the New York Times, “children who are younger than 9 and have never before received the vaccine will also need two flu shots this year, spread out about four weeks apart. Likewise, children under 9 who have received just one flu shot in the past — and then never received another flu shot at any other point in time — should also get two shots this year.”

“I do not recommend multiple flu shots [for other age groups],” Dr. Ison told ClearHealthCosts. “For most people it doesn’t help. There are some very selected populations where it is appropriate (people who have recently had a stem cell or solid organ transplant, for example). But for most people, one shot per year is generally all that is needed. For individuals over 65 years of age, I strongly recommend getting the high dose vaccine, as this has been associated with better responses in older adults and lower rates of illness and hospitalizations.”

Lessons from the Southern Hemisphere

In the Southern Hemisphere, where flu season started in March, countries such as South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, and parts of South America are reporting unprecedented lows in the number of flu cases this year. The reason? Large-scale measures taken to fight Covid — such as mask-wearing, social distancing and isolation —  also help prevent the spread of the flu virus. However, because many places in the U.S. are pushing back on restrictions and starting to reopen, the United States cannot necessarily expect the same result.