The flu season is upon us. Every year, millions of Americans contract the flu, with numbers of cases peaking during the winter months. This year, unfortunately, the world is still in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. While there is not yet a vaccine for the SARS-CoV-2 virus that is responsible for the COVID-19 disease, there is a vaccine for the influenza virus that causes the flu. The flu vaccine is available annually and is usually effective. For those who have not yet been vaccinated, there are many reasons why it is extra important to get immunized this year.
To start, the flu vaccine will prevent or decrease the chance of getting the flu. Despite being seen often as a common cold, the flu is nothing to brush off: Beyond its combination of fever, chills, headache, diffuse body aches, nasal congestion, sore throat, cough, and extreme fatigue, it can lead to more serious complications such as pneumonia, multi-organ failure, and sepsis, a severe inflammatory response mounted by the body towards the invading influenza virus. In very severe cases, getting a flu infection can be fatal. According to the CDC, during last year’s flu season, 38,000,000 Americans were sick from the flu, 400,000 required hospitalization, and 22,000 Americans died from the flu. Although the elderly and the very young are at the highest risk for severe and life-threatening influenza infections, the flu can also be fatal in young and otherwise healthy individuals.
Additionally, by getting a flu vaccine, the spread of the flu stymies. Like COVID-19, a person with the flu can be infectious even before he or she displays any symptoms of being sick. By preventing the flu’s spread, the vaccinated population protects those around them. This is especially for those who regularly interact with the elderly, children younger than age 2, or people with underlying chronic medical conditions. This immunocompromised population is in danger of life-threatening medical complications if they contract the virus. The flu may only keep some in bed and out of school for a week, but for these vulnerable populations, the flu could be life-threatening.
In addition to these usual reasons for getting a flu vaccine, this year the presence of COVID-19 adds additional, compelling reasons in favor of getting one. With COVID-19 cases threatening to surge again, and the historical pattern of rising flu activity during the winter months, it is very possible that a person can be infected with the SARS-CoV-2 virus and the influenza virus at the same time. Since both have the potential to make a person extremely ill, having both infections at the same time would be a dire situation, but a preventable one via vaccination.
Furthermore, testing for the COVID-19 and influenza viruses involves using a similar technique and testing reagents. The more people who need to get tested for either virus, the increased risk of overwhelming testing centers and running out of supplies for testing. By getting a flu vaccine and preventing the preventable, resources needed for COVID-19 testing can be conserved. Along the same lines, if both the number of cases of COVID-19 and the flu continues to increase, this would overburden physicians and hospitals. Getting a flu shot will help keep flu cases lower, saving physician visits and hospital beds for those who get sick with COVID-19.
As we head into this unprecedented winter season in which both the SARS-CoV-2 virus and influenza virus have the potential to spread through our communities, this is an important time to get vaccinated. In the face of a global pandemic and an upcoming seasonal virus, mitigating the spread of disease is more crucial than ever before.