McLean County doctors and public health professionals say the pandemic has made it more important than ever to get a flu shot, and that getting one won’t increase your chances of getting COVID-19 or make it worse if you do.
The CDC recommends that everyone over the age of six months should be vaccinated against the flu every year. Getting the flu vaccination is especially important for those who are more at risk for flu complications.
“This year because of COVID, it is more important than ever to get a flu shot,” said McLean County Health Department Clinical Services Division Director Tammy Brooks. “We need to make sure our health care systems are not overburdened by people with influenza, so that health care providers are available to treat people who have COVID."
The health department will not be administering flu shots this year due to staffing issues related to COVID-19. Those staffers are now busy doing COVID investigations and contact tracing.
However, the MCHD said there is no problem with access.
“For the last several years almost all of the pharmacies make the flu shot available,” said Brooks. “We felt pretty comfortable stepping away from the game this year.”
Health care professionals stress that it’s safe to go to a clinic. At OSF HealthCare all staff will be masked, wearing gloves and using appropriate protection, protective equipment (PPE).
“We are making sure that both patients are safe from us, and we're safe from the patient, using masking, hand washing and everything else,” said OSF Chief Medical Officer Dr. Paul Pedersen. “I think it's important that everybody get that flu vaccination. You know, even those folks who are very healthy are unlikely to suffer from flu. If it's true influenza, the likelihood that they're going to be able to pass it off to somebody who is also suffering from COVID is still there.”
Both at the same time?
A typical flu season runs from October through April, with illnesses peeking in January and February. Flu vaccinations last three to six, maybe seven, months. So if you get vaccinated in September or October, you're generally immune (to the extent you can be) until March or April.
“Now we have pretty good evidence that COVID doesn't seem to be very seasonal with all of the episodes happening throughout the summer, and whenever people are getting together, so it doesn't seem to be all that seasonal,” said Pederson. “Even though our president did say that he was just waiting for warmer weather so it would burn off this virus (COVID), he appears to have either been given inaccurate information or expressed an opinion that is inaccurate.”
Pedersen said it’s possible to have both the flu and COVID-19. Generally, medical professionals would say if you have one, you probably don't have the other.
“But it's certainly possible that you could have both,” said Pedersen. “They would complicate each other.”
There remains a lot of uncertainty.
“We really don’t know because we still are learning about COVID,” said Brooks. “We really don’t know if it would sneak in on somebody if they were currently fighting another illness.”
Brooks said the best thing for someone to do to protect the immune system is to get a flu shot.
Standard messaging about the flu shot is that it will not give you the flu; it is a dead virus.
“Your body could have a slight reaction to something new,” said Brooks. “You don't get the flu from a flu shot.”
A timeline for a COVID-19 vaccine remains unclear. In the future Brooks said it is unlikely the flu shot would be paired with the COVID vaccine, similarly to a MMR vaccine, because COVID is new.
“We don’t know what complications come with a COVID vaccine,” said Brooks. “It is unlikely they’ll (manufacturers of the vaccine) do a combo vaccine because with the COVID vaccine being brand new, they’d want to research that vaccine independently.”
Brook said there is always research going on, and for any vaccine there is a constant gathering of information to ensure there aren’t complications.
There of course is the myth that a flu shot could bring down your immune system. With spiking COVID cases in McLean County, that’s the last thing someone would want.
Pederson debunks this, saying it actually enhances the immune system, both specifically against influenza and a little bit generally.
“It's a good thing to get a flu vaccination and it does protect you pretty well,” said Pederson. “Not completely not 100% but pretty well against influenza.”
Pederson said getting a flu shot won't worsen your experience of COVID if you contract it. Neither will it increase your chances of getting COVID.
Recent CDC studies show that flu vaccination reduces the risk of flu illness by between 40% and 60%. In general, current flu vaccines tend to work better against influenza B and influenza A (H1N1) viruses and offer lower protection against influenza A(H3N2) viruses.
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