By Joyce Reingold
As the influenza season converges with the COVID-19 pandemic, the message from medical professionals this year is more emphatic than ever: Get your darn flu shot already.
Dr. Andrew Savin, an internal medicine physician with the Bethesda Health Physician Group, a part of Baptist Health South Florida, is of a like mind.
“I’m trying to tell patients, and I’m sure every physician is, to get the flu vaccine to decrease the risk that people are going to have to deal with two different infections — not necessarily at the same time, but making things very confusing for the patients, the health care providers, the family members. So, if any year is good to get a flu shot, it’s going to be this year and probably next year as well.”
During the 2018-19 flu season, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates the vaccine prevented 4.4 million cases of the flu, 2.3 million doctor visits, 58,000 hospitalizations and 3,500 deaths. But, getting the vaccine doesn’t mean you won’t get the flu — the CDC says vaccines have been 40%-60% effective in prior years.
“Every year, the flu virus is almost like something made out of Legos, and you replace one red piece with a yellow piece, or you may have one part sticking out that looks different than the other part,” Savin explained. “And what happens is every year it changes. Some years it might repeat, and some years it’ll be different for 10 years.
“And what we do is early in the flu season, across the world, we start figuring out what seems to be going across all the different countries. And we try to make it (the vaccine) in anticipation of what it’s going to be like the next season.”
Since flu season typically peaks between December and March, it’s still too early to know the efficacy of this year’s vaccine. But Savin said there’s no question it’s well worth the quick jab in the arm.
“Every once in a while, they’ll miss the right virus. And most of the time they get it and there’s some level of protection. And what I have found is that even if they don’t get it exactly right, the people who do get flu, even if they’ve had the vaccine, don’t get as sick. The people who I typically see who are the sickest are the ones who didn’t get any vaccine and it happens to be a pretty virulent year,” he said.
Savin said over the years, he’s heard a variety of reasons why people are still wary of the vaccine, most of which are “complete urban myths.”
One, for example, is that the vaccine gives you the flu.
“You’re not injecting people with the flu virus. You’re injecting them with little pieces of the flu virus, the parts that your immune system needs to attack. So, your body’s sort of making a little copy of that and making immunity to it, but it’s actually not reproducing in your body as a virus,” he said.
Others believe the vaccine is dangerous. “The number of problems with it, in terms of side effects and issues with patients, is I would say minimal compared to what I see when patients get the flu,” Savin said. “I have seen people get a sore arm. I’ve seen people sometimes get some aches and pains or low-grade fevers with it. Other than that, the number of patients who’ve ever really have bad problems with the flu shot is almost minuscule. … So, I really don’t get too concerned about it.”
Given the presence of COVID-19, Savin said, this flu season finds us in “uncharted waters.” Still, he is optimistic, largely because of what we’ve learned during the pandemic.
“I’m seeing people are pretty much keeping themselves very protected, which I think means that people are probably going to get the flu less this year … they’re not going out and getting exposed to flu, which is pretty easy to catch in the environment,” he said. “Wearing a mask and going to Publix to pick up some things and leaving — the chances of getting influenza from that are really pretty low.”
Because the flu and the coronavirus, both highly contagious respiratory illnesses, may present with similar symptoms, Savin said testing, via nasal swabs, will be especially important this year.
“We just have to be really careful, use common sense and test people that we think need to be tested — and get everybody that flu shot.”
Getting a flu shot
If you haven’t had yours yet, the CDC says it’s not too late: “Vaccination can still be beneficial as long as flu viruses are circulating. If you have not been vaccinated by Thanksgiving (or the end of November), it can still be protective to get vaccinated in December or later. Flu is unpredictable and seasons can vary.”
You can get vaccinated at Publix, CVS and Walgreens — usually at no charge and sometimes with the bonus of a gift card — as well as at physicians’ offices and urgent care centers. Baptist Health offers free flu shots at its multiple urgent care locations. Or, plug your address into the nationwide VaccineFinder.org to see more options.
As always, check with your doctor first if you have any questions about getting a flu shot.
Fever or feeling feverish/chills *
Runny or stuffy nose
Muscle or body aches
Some people may have vomiting and diarrhea, though this is more common in children than adults.
* It’s important to note that not everyone with the flu will get a fever.
Joyce Reingold writes about health and healthy living. Send column ideas to email@example.com.