Flu season during COVID-19: Why getting the flu vaccine is more important than ever this year
By Lucy Lau
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues into the fall and winter, the increased spread of influenza — more commonly known as the flu — creates a new challenge for healthcare practitioners.
The coexistence of two contagious respiratory viruses with similar symptoms has the potential to overwhelm healthcare systems and lead to serious, potentially life-threatening illness in individuals, says Dr. Janine McCready, infectious diseases physician at MGH.
As a result, we must use every scientifically backed tool at our disposal to limit the spread of viruses during this time of year.
This includes getting the flu vaccine, a vaccine that protects the body from the influenza virus and is strongly recommended annually for anyone more than six months old.
The vaccine is free and can be received through family doctors, participating pharmacies or public clinics.
“It’s really a no-brainer,” says Dr. McCready. “If there’s something that would make driving safer, for example, people would do it. It’s good sense to try to use all the resources available, especially as work continues internationally toward a COVID-19 vaccine.”
Below, Dr. McCready shares four reasons why it’s more important than ever this year to get the flu vaccine.
It reduces stress on the healthcare system
At the peak of COVID-19 in March, stay-at-home orders were implemented across Canada in an effort to keep infection and transmission rates low so hospitals wouldn’t be overwhelmed by capacity.
According to Dr. McCready, getting the flu vaccine serves the same purpose this fall.
By getting the flu vaccine, you’ll protect yourself and others from the influenza virus and complications related to it, thus helping to free up hospital resources for patients with COVID-19 in the event there’s a second wave of the virus in the fall.
“If we get an increase in COVID-19 and flu cases at the same time, that is going to cause significant stress on the healthcare system, resulting in more hospitalizations and generally poorer health outcomes for people,” Dr. McCready says.
It helps you better identify symptoms of COVID-19
The influenza virus and COVID-19 share some symptoms, including fever, cough, headache and fatigue.
This makes it difficult, even for infectious disease experts, to determine which one of the two viruses someone may be suffering from without conducting a formal test.
Therefore, by protecting yourself from the flu, you significantly decrease your chances of contracting one of the viruses.
This helps to ensure that, if you do begin experiencing symptoms like fever and cough, you self-isolate and seek medical attention as it may be COVID-19.
“It helps decrease the overall number of viruses that are circulating and the potential for transmission,” says Dr. McCready.
It decreases the risk of coinfection and secondary infection
Scientists and medical practitioners are still studying the intricacies of the novel coronavirus, including how it would affect the body alongside other viruses like influenza.
While there is still much we don’t know, Dr. McCready says the few cases of coinfection we’ve seen internationally early in the pandemic have resulted in worse health outcomes for people.
“We don’t know enough about how often coinfections happen with COVID-19 and how severe they can be, so minimizing infections is a priority,” says Dr. McCready.
People who have had COVID-19 or the flu may also be more susceptible to bacterial infections, which, in some cases, can lead to serious disease and even death. Protecting yourself from the flu therefore protects your body from these infections, too.
“Getting the flu vaccine makes it far less likely that you’ll develop a severe illness,” says Dr. McCready.
It remains a strong line of defence for your — and others’ — health
The bottom line is vaccines work. They’re rigorously tested and shown to demonstrate safety and efficacy before being used on the public, says Dr. McCready, and they’re one of our first lines of defence against illness.
In this, getting the flu vaccine is akin to public health and infection prevent and control (IPAC) guidelines like physical distancing, hand washing and mask wearing.
“These are all tools in our toolkit in the fight against COVID-19,” says Dr. McCready. “They help keep people healthy.”
Even if you personally think getting the flu vaccine won’t benefit you, think of the people around you. This includes at-risk populations like pregnant women, children, the elderly and individuals with pre-existing health conditions that may prevent them from receiving the flu vaccine.
“Vaccines protect people on an individual level, but they also help protect vulnerable people around you,” says Dr. McCready. “So, by not getting the flu vaccine, you’re not only putting yourself at risk, you’re putting these groups at risk, too.”