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Flu season during COVID-19: Why getting the flu vaccine is more important than ever this year
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues into yet another fall and winter, healthcare workers are preparing for the increased spread of another virus: influenza, more commonly known as the flu.
“Flu cases were low last year because we were in a province-wide lockdown. This year, however, we’re seeing more people socializing in-person, commuting to work, travelling recreationally and being out and about in the community,” says Dr. Janine McCready, Infectious Diseases Physician at Michael Garron Hospital (MGH).
“This means we will likely see an increase of all viruses compared to last year, including COVID-19 and the flu,” Janine continues. “This has the potential to overwhelm healthcare systems and lead to serious, potentially life-threatening illness in individuals.”
Every year, healthcare practitioners like Janine recommend anyone over six months old get the flu vaccine, which protects the body from serious illness, death and hospitalization from the flu. This year is no different.
In fact, Janine says there are even more benefits to getting the flu vaccine this year because COVID-19 – another contagious respiratory virus with similar symptoms as the flu, including fever, cough and sore throat – is also circulating.
“It’s really a no-brainer,” says Janine, who will be getting the flu vaccine this year along with her partner and two kids.
“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 at our disposal to protect ourselves and our loved ones during a time of year when more people tend to get sick.”
Below, Janine shares five reasons why it’s more important than ever to get the flu vaccine this year.
It is safe to get the flu vaccine and the COVID-19 vaccine at the same time or around the same time
The National Advisory Committee on Immunization (NACI) says anyone can get the COVID-19 vaccine at the same time as, or any time before or after other vaccines, including the flu vaccine.
This includes getting the flu vaccine between your first and second dose, and between your second and third dose if you are eligible.
NACI says it has reviewed updated evidence on the COVID-19 vaccines and the data around giving other vaccines at the same time or within days of each other.
The group found no safety concerns around co-administering the COVID-19 vaccine with other vaccines. This includes co-administering vaccines in pregnant people, children, the elderly and individuals who are immunocompromised.
However, NACI notes people may experience more temporary side effects when a COVID-19 vaccine and another vaccine are given around the same time. These side effects are typically minor and go away after a short time.
In addition, the group says different vaccines administered at the same time should use two different injection sites. (For example, your left arm and right arm.)
“The fact that we’re safely able to co-administer the flu vaccine and COVID-19 vaccine means we can more quickly protect most of the population from both the influenza virus and COVID-19,” Janine says.
“This helps reduce the amount of viruses circulating in the community, which improves health outcomes for everyone.”
It reduces stress on the healthcare system
During the pandemic, stay-at-home orders have been implemented around the world to keep COVID-19 infection and transmission rates low so hospitals are not overwhelmed by capacity.
Janine says getting the flu vaccine helps achieve the same goal this fall.
By getting the flu vaccine, you will protect yourself and others from the influenza virus and complications related to it. This helps keep you and others out of hospital, so resources are available for patients with other medical issues.
“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,” Janine says.
It helps you better identify symptoms of COVID-19
The influenza virus and COVID-19 share some symptoms, including fever, cough, sore throat 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 getting the flu vaccine, you significantly decrease your chances of contracting the influenza virus.
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.
“Getting the flu vaccine and the COVID-19 vaccine helps decrease the overall number of viruses that are circulating and the potential for transmission,” Janine says.
It decreases the risk of co-infection and secondary infection
Scientists and medical practitioners are still studying the intricacies of COVID-19, including how it affects the body alongside other viruses like influenza.
While there is still much we don’t know, Janine says the few cases of co-infection we have seen internationally have resulted in worse health outcomes for people.
“We don’t know enough about how often co-infections 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 are rigorously tested and shown to demonstrate safety and efficacy before being used on the public, Janine says, and they are one of our first lines of defence against illness.
In this, getting the flu vaccine is similar to following public health guidelines like physical distancing, wearing a mask and washing your hands.
“These are all tools in our toolkit in the fight against the flu, COVID-19 and other viruses,” Janine says. “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 pregnant people, the elderly, children under five years old and individuals who are immunocompromised.
These groups are more likely to experience serious illness or complications if they get the flu or COVID-19, which makes it even more vital that they and the people around them are vaccinated.
“Vaccines protect people on an individual level, but they also help protect vulnerable people around you,” Janine says. “So, by not getting the flu vaccine – or the COVID-19 vaccine, for that matter – you’re not only putting yourself at risk, you’re putting these groups at risk, too.”
The flu vaccine is free and available to everyone six months and older in Ontario. See a list of locations in East Toronto where you can get the flu vaccine.