COVID And Flu Season: ‘It’s the Perfect Storm Brewing Out There’

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CHARLOTTE – Last year’s flu season came when people were social distancing, washing their hands faithfully and wearing masks to stop the spread of COVID-19. Those measures prevent flu, as well. With online schooling and office closures also in play, the flu season was almost nonexistent.

Dr. Charles Bregier
Dr. Charles Bregier

It’s a different story in 2021. With the easing of pandemic restrictions, the flu is expected to make a comeback this year, and doctors urge everyone to get the annual flu shot. Most years, it reduces the risk of getting influenza between 40% and 60%, said Dr. Charles Bregier, Novant Health medical director of corporate health.

“It’s estimated that 60,000 hospitalizations each year could be avoided if more people got the vaccine,” Bregier said. And the more people who get the flu shot, the more effective it is overall.

He explains how to keep you and your family safe as we look to cooler months ahead.

When should I get the flu shot?

The flu vaccine is effective for about six months, so October is the ideal month to get vaccinated. If you get it too early, it may lose its effectiveness before the end of flu season, which typically goes until March or April. We’ve had some years when flu season has gone into May. That is unusual, but it can happen.

Does my child need the flu shot?

Yes. Children can begin flu vaccinations once they are 6 months old, with rare exceptions. If the child is getting their first flu vaccine, we recommend getting two doses. The idea behind getting two, and those doses being at least four weeks apart, is to allow the child’s immune systems to have a more robust response.

Not only does it reduce the risk of flu illness and hospitalization for the child, it helps prevent spreading the flu to siblings or babies who are too young to receive it. If your child is afraid of vaccines, read this advice from a Novant Health pediatrician.

Can I get the flu shot if I am pregnant?

Yes. Pregnant women are at significantly higher risk to have a more severe illness if they get the flu. The flu shot reduces the risk of flu-associated acute respiratory infection in pregnant women by up to one-half.

I advise they get the flu vaccine regardless of where they are at in their pregnancy – the first month or ninth. Mothers can pass the antibodies onto their developing baby during pregnancy, which then helps to protect the baby for several months after birth.

There is also evidence the COVID-19 vaccines can induce immunity and protect infants who are (currently) too young to receive it. The CDC and two leading organizations representing specialists in obstetric care recommend that all pregnant women be vaccinated against COVID. And remember, there is nothing in the vaccine that could possibly affect fertility.

Do I need to time my flu shot around the COVID-19 vaccine?

No. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has made it clear they can be safely administered at the same time.

Is a flu vaccination even more important this year because of the ongoing pandemic?

Yes, for a couple of different reasons. First, there is always a risk of being co-infected with multiple viruses at the same time. Each of these viruses can cause significant disease. I’m very concerned about what the mortality and morbidity could be for someone who has a co-infection.

Secondly, hospitalization rates typically go way up in flu season. People who get sick with pneumonia as a complication of the flu, or dehydration and other medical problems that could develop, can end up being hospitalized. And people are still being hospitalized for COVID. It’s the perfect storm that is brewing out there. If COVID remains bad and it’s a bad flu season, it could completely overwhelm our nation’s health care system.

Will getting a flu shot make me sick?

Flu vaccines are made from inactivated influenza viruses. They are dead particles. Because the vaccine is inactivated, it cannot make you sick.

People who say, “Oh gosh, five years ago, I got a flu shot. And three days later, I was sick with the flu.” That’s really bad luck, because it wasn’t the flu shot that made them sick. People are all out and about in a grocery store, in a barbershop, in Walmart or somewhere else, and one of those places is likely where they were exposed to the flu.

Who is most at risk for developing severe flu complications?

Most people who get the flu will recover in a few days to less than two weeks, but some people will develop complications (such as pneumonia), some of which can be life-threatening. There are several groups of people who are at greater risk of experiencing potentially severe flu complications.

  • Pregnant women.
  • Children under 5 years old.
  • Anyone who is 65 or older.
  • People who take medications that suppress the immune system.
  • Those with chronic conditions such as diabetes, asthma, heart or lung disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), a history of stroke or heart attacks, and congestive heart failure or other chronic health problems.

What would you say to people who don’t believe in flu shots, or skip years between vaccinations?

Flu is very contagious, and it can cause severe illness and complications. The flu is prevented very well most seasons by getting a flu vaccine. It can make your arm muscle a little sore, but it’s local discomfort that all people generally get.

It protects both you and others from the flu. If you get the flu and bring it home, an at-risk family member could get extremely ill. No one wants that on their conscience.

While the best defense against the flu is vaccination, it isn’t the only defense. The same safety measures that help limit the spread of COVID also work with flu and cold – contagious illnesses that spread mainly spread through respiratory droplets:

  • Wear a mask.
  • Wash your hands thoroughly and frequently.
  • Avoid commonly touched surfaces that could be contaminated.
  • Stay home if you do not feel well.
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