Now, more than ever, get your flu shot

It’s always important to get your flu shot. But, this year, it may save your life, even if you are in generally good health. That’s because, with COVID-19, there’s a chance people could get both illnesses at the same time.

The flu and its complications claimed 62,000 lives in the U.S. last year, and hundreds of thousands were hospitalized. It can be a virulent, life-threatening disease, especially for the elderly and those with other health conditions. Combine it with the coronavirus, and health experts are unsure how patients will fare and if the health care system will be overwhelmed.

“We have no idea how COVID-19 and the flu might interact,” said Dr. Suraj Saggar, chief of the Infectious Disease Department at Holy Name Medical Center. “The pandemic spread here just as the flu season ebbed. It’s best to eliminate that risk to the extent possible — especially since coronavirus is still lurking and some epidemiologists fear another wave. We can’t risk a ‘twin-demic’ that could lead to more illness and death and potentially overload our health system.”

Many of the symptoms for both diseases — fever, cough, fatigue and muscle aches — are the same, which could complicate quick diagnoses and treatment plans. It could also burden the health system as medical personnel try to isolate COVID-19 patients.

“The flu season generally runs from October through May, with the peak in the winter months,” Dr. Saggar said. “The vaccine takes a few weeks to become effective, so the optimal time to get it is now.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that everyone over the age of 6 months get the flu vaccine. Additional doses have been manufactured to meet increasing demand this year. For those uneasy about getting the vaccine, rest assured, it is not a live virus. There is no way to get the flu from a flu shot.

Some people report having a reaction to the vaccine, such as mild flu-like symptoms. This is the immune system kicking in to mount a defense against the virus. It means the vaccine is working, and symptoms usually abate after a day or two.

As usual, there is a heightened concern about the flu affecting the very young, very old, those with immunosuppressed conditions or other underlying illnesses such as diabetes or asthma. For people in those populations, there is a high-potency dose vaccine available.

Experts are hoping that, with all the hand washing, social distancing and mask-wearing protocols, the spread of the flu as well as coronavirus will be tamped down. But getting the vaccine — although not 100% effective — is still the best way to prevent yourself from getting the seasonal infection.