Getting a flu vaccine this year is even more important than usual because of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to public health officials.
“We should push for massive uptake of the vaccine this year,” said John Brownstein, who tracks outbreaks around the world as Chief Innovation Officer at Boston Children’s Hospital. “Everyone who is eligible should get it.”
Producers are boosting supplies of the flu vaccine this year to meet what they expect will be higher demand. CVS stores already have the flu vaccine in stock and vaccines are available as of Monday at Walgreens.
Vaccine maker Sanofi plans to hold a news conference Monday morning announcing that it will produce 15% more vaccine than in a normal year.
“Flu vaccines work and they can take a big burden off our medical infrastructure,” John Shiver, global head of vaccines research and development for the company, said last week. “Let’s keep people out of the hospital with flu while we deal with a likely upswing in COVID infections.” The flu shot isn’t always effective, but it’s much better than nothing, said Dr. Shira Doron, an infectious disease physician and hospital epidemiologist at Tufts Medical Center in Boston.
The U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that everyone six months and older get a flu vaccine every year. The agency did not respond to a request for comment about this year’s situation. The CDC recommends people get a flu vaccine by the end of October – because it takes a few weeks for the vaccine to become fully protective – but also encourages people to get vaccinated later rather than not at all.
It’s hard to know how the flu will interact with COVID-19. The flu season has been mild in the Southern Hemisphere which is usually six months ahead of the U.S. But it isn’t clear whether that’s because of the flu strains circulating this year, or because the same public health measures that prevent COVID-19 – masks, social distancing and frequent hand washing – also stop flu outbreaks. So far, not many people have contracted the flu at the same time as COVID-19. Those sick with both seem to have mild to moderate symptoms, though at least two deaths have been reported.
“What will co-infection mean is a big area of concern,” Brownstein said. Considerable research is now underway.
In 2018-2019, there were about 490,000 people hospitalized because of the flu and more than 35,000 died, in what was considered a “moderate” year for the flu. Since March, more than 345,000 Americans have been hospitalized and 170,000 have died from COVID-19.