Summer’s nearly over, and unfortunately, we are still very much in the throes of a pandemic. As fall approaches, there’s another community health concern to contend with: flu season.
The dual threat of influenza and COVID-19 has public health experts warning of a “twindemic” effect that could sicken the population and overwhelm hospitals.
Social distancing, masking up, washing your hands and getting tested regularly remains the best strategy for protecting yourself against the coronavirus, but we actually have a vaccine for the flu that greatly reduces your risk of infection.
Continuing to follow the hygienic practices in place to prevent COVID-19 and getting a flu shot is your best bet for staying healthy this fall.
Here’s when infectious disease specialists and primary care physicians advise you to get your flu shot and what else you need to know about the double threat of flu and the coronavirus.
Get your flu shot in early fall if you want the best chance at protection.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends getting a flu shot in September or October. While flu season can last well into late spring, it typically ramps up in the fall and peaks between December and February.
After getting the flu shot, it takes about two weeks to build up antibodies. Getting vaccinated at the beginning of fall allows ample time to build up immunity that will last through the worst months of flu season.
“With the flu vaccine, you probably get about six months of coverage,” explained Jennifer Lighter, an infectious disease specialist and hospital epidemiologist at NYU Langone Health.
The timing is especially important for people ages 65 and older, who don’t build up the same level of immunity or antibodies and who might not have immunity for as many months, according to David Buchholz, a pediatrician and the senior founding medical director for primary care at Columbia University Irving Medical Center. Seniors also require a high-dose vaccine, which is available wherever you get your standard flu shot.
Additionally, kids under the age of 9, whose immune systems likely haven’t yet been exposed to the flu, require two shots, and should get their first shot on the early side of September if possible so they can get their booster before Nov. 1, Buchholz advised.
Everyone except for babies should get the flu shot, pandemic or not.
According to the CDC, everyone ages six months or older should get vaccinated against the flu.
“I’m afraid people won’t get the flu shot because they don’t want to go to their doctor or their pharmacy,” Buchholz said. “But if people are doing all the appropriate things — social distancing, wearing a mask, washing their hands — they are safe to go get their vaccine, and we encourage it.”
Moreover, health care workers administering the vaccine are instructed to follow pandemic social distancing measures. Neglecting to stay up to date on preventive health services like vaccinations could lead to community spread of infections, which, on top of COVID-19, could cause the twindemic officials fear.
The flu shot is widely available — at your doctor’s office, local pharmacy, community health center, pop-up sites — and is either free or covered by insurance. Check with your local health department for locations (for example, NYC Health provides a map). The CDC also has a vaccine finder you can use to look up a site near you.
There are some added health risks if you don’t get the flu shot this year.
“Let’s say people aren’t doing the right thing to prevent COVID,” like not wearing a mask or not practicing social distancing, Buchholz said. “They are not only really likely to get COVID, they’re also really likely to get the flu if they’re not vaccinated.”
It may be possible to contract COVID-19 and the flu at the same time — a phenomenon known as co-infection. In that case, or if a large number of people end up infected with either the flu or COVID-19, we’re at risk of our health systems being overwhelmed with severe cases, as we saw in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic.
The good news is that the measures we are taking to prevent COVID-19 also help protect against the flu because both viruses are contagious respiratory infections spread through droplets. Getting vaccinated isn’t a 100% guarantee you won’t get the flu, but it is an added safeguard.
The flu vaccine “has about 50% efficacy in preventing infection if exposed. And if you do get infected after getting the flu vaccine, the chances you get severe sickness from flu is significantly reduced,” Lighter explained.
We want to keep our immune systems strong during a pandemic, and taking preventive measures against the flu can help with that. For example, getting the flu could make people more vulnerable to contracting COVID-19, according to Lighter.
“We know that people get more staph infections after getting the flu,” Lighter said. “The mucosal border is interrupted when you get the flu, so if you’re exposed to COVID, you could be more susceptible to getting infected.”
Additionally, COVID-19 and flu symptoms look strikingly similar — fever, respiratory symptoms, fatigue, body aches and shortness of breath, which in severe cases can result in hospitalization or death. At the very least, getting vaccinated will help you from agonizing the second you feel under the weather, playing the “Is it flu or is it COVID-19?” game.
Bottom line: “We have to do everything possible to prevent the flu being a big deal in the winter,” Buchholz says.
And don’t forget, getting vaccinated against the flu doesn’t only protect you; it keeps you from infecting others — whether you’re an asymptomatic carrier or dealing with a mild case — particularly seniors and immunocompromised folks, who are more vulnerable to getting severe flu cases.
Experts are still learning about COVID-19. The information in this story is what was known or available as of publication, but guidance can change as scientists discover more about the virus. Please check the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for the most updated recommendations.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story misstated Buchholz’s title.