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In COVID-19 era, flu vaccine remains essential

By DR. ANDREA WILLIS
If you’ve recently heard the word “vaccine,” it’s most likely been in relation to the novel coronavirus as anticipation grows for a safe, tested and proven way to combat COVID-19.
But there’s another virus to be concerned about — the flu. And this year’s vaccine is available now. It takes about two weeks to be fully effective, so getting a flu shot in September will help protect you as influenza starts to spread in October.
While these past months may seem like a blur, the reality is that we are approaching fall, and with it, flu season. On average, the flu hospitalizes more than 200,000 Americans per year. Worse, it can result in deaths in the tens of thousands across the country.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that more than 1,600 Tennesseans died from influenza during the 2017-2018 season.
Pair that with a pandemic that shows few signs of slowing before flu season begins, and the gravity of the situation is clear. This year, the flu could actually be more dangerous than usual.
Flu is not COVID-19, but here’s how they are alike.
That may sound frightening, but let me explain why it’s true — and what we can do to help prevent it.
Our public health care infrastructure is going to be challenged. The past few months have seen the tragic results of a limited number of health care resources, such as not enough COVID-19 tests, overworked and exhausted front-line providers, and fewer adult hospital beds.
Like COVID-19, the flu is easily transmitted via droplets that result from sneezing, coughing or talking. Adults age 65 and over, pregnant women, young children, and those with a history of asthma, heart disease and stroke, and diabetes are most susceptible to the flu.
Both the flu and COVID-19 can cause severe upper respiratory infections. Studies have shown a flu shot can reduce the likelihood of catching the flu by 40%-60%.
Even if you aren’t at high-risk, getting vaccinated can help protect those who are.
Ironically, people following safety precautions for COVID-19 is another reason to worry about flu season. Some may be afraid to visit the doctor or worry there’s no room for them in the health care system. We have to stay as safe as we can, and that means getting a flu shot – not avoiding one.
Even with this reality upon us, we don’t have to live in a state of panic. Vaccines have been proven safe and effective for decades. Consider diseases like polio, which was eradicated in the U.S. thanks to development of a commercial vaccine in 1961.
Measles rates dropped for many years after its vaccine was widely accepted beginning in 1963, though we’re now seeing a resurgence because some children aren’t vaccinated.
Perhaps most importantly with COVID-19 still lurking, the flu vaccine can help keep your immune system from being impaired. (A dual diagnosis is possible, but we do not yet know what effects both viruses will have on the body.) Even if the flu vaccine isn’t always exact, its safety should never be in doubt. And most individuals who receive it either avoid contracting the virus or have a milder case if they do.
Let me be clear: the benefits of the flu vaccine far outweigh any risks.
If you have health insurance, your flu shot is likely covered at no or very little cost. If you don’t have insurance, remember that most local health departments in Tennessee have free flu shots available while supplies last, in addition to offering flu shots at a reasonable cost.
So please, get your flu shot, and if you can, get it now.
Getting ahead of the virus’ spread could prove crucial for the health of you and your loved ones.
(Andrea D. Willis, MD, MPH, FAAP, is senior vice president and chief medical officer at BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee.)