Reducing the spread of influenza is now more important than ever due to the COVID-19 pandemic, as the push for vaccination begins amidst the endeavor to stop the overburdening of hospital systems and risks associated with the population’s most vulnerable.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is already gearing up for flu season, working with vaccine manufacturers to make additional vaccines available, already being distributed now. For the 2020-2021 season, manufacturers have projected they will provide as many as 194-198 million doses of flu vaccine, which is more than the 175 million dose record set during the 2019-2020 flu season.
Why can’t I skip the flu shot?
With the onslaught of COVID-19, the importance of flu vaccination has escalated for a number of factors.
Influenza is one of top 10 leading causes of death in the United States annually. From October 2019 to April 4, 2020 alone, the CDC estimates there were as many as 56 million flu illnesses, 740,000 hospitalizations and up to 62,000 deaths from the flu.
According to the CDC, efforts to reduce the spread of COVID-19 including stay-at-home orders have led to a decrease in routine medical visits, including immunizations, leaving individuals susceptible to infection and disease—which could have been preventable. This, in turn, leads to unnecessary medical visits and hospitalizations, which further burdens the healthcare system.
In addition, by reducing the spread of the flu, it also protects the most vulnerable populations who are at risk for severe illness from creating further opportunity to contract COVID-19.
In a recent CNN health report, Maria Van Kerkhove, the World Health Organization’s technical lead for COVID-19, explained that the Global Influenza Surveillance and Response System is being used in countries for both flu and COVID-19.
Kerkhove said the systems put in place across the globe must continue to test for both the flu and COVID-19, noting that testing will be needed, as it is difficult to immediately distinguish between a COVID-19 infection and a flu infection.
“It could complicate the clinical picture, but there are tools that are in place for influenza,” said Van Kerkhove. “So it is really, really important that when the vaccine becomes available for flu, that people do take that vaccine.”
The CDC reports it is likely that an individual can contract both the flu and COVID-19 at the same time. Because the symptoms are similar, diagnostic testing will be needed. The CDC has developed a test that will check for both influenza-type viruses and COVID-19 at the same time as well.
While influenza and COVID-19 are both respiratory illnesses, they are caused by different viruses. Flu and COVID-19 share many characteristics, but there are some key differences between the two.
The CDC states the following differences:
- The flu is caused by infection with influenza viruses; COVID-19 is caused by a new coronavirus (SARS-COV-2).
- If a person has COVID-19, it could take them longer to develop symptoms than if they had flu.
- Most people with flu are contagious for about one day before they show symptoms.
- The risk of complications for healthy children is higher for flu compared to COVID-19. However, infants and children with underlying medical conditions are at increased risk for both flu and COVID-19.
- Most people who get flu will recover in a few days to less than two weeks, but some people will develop complications.
- Additional complications associated with COVID-19 can include blood clots in the veins and arteries of the lungs, heart, legs or brain; and Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome in Children (MIS-C)
- While COVID-19 and flu viruses are thought to spread in similar ways, COVID-19 is more contagious among certain populations and age groups than flu.
- Prescription influenza antiviral drugs are FDA-approved to treat flu; there are currently no drugs or other therapeutics approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to prevent or treat COVID-19.
Check this table for more comprehensive information comparing COVID-19 and flu, given the best available information to date.
What are the benefits of a flu vaccine?
Research conducted by the CDC has found that a flu vaccine can reduce doctor and hospital visits for the flu by 40 to 60 percent.
In 2018-2019, flu vaccination prevented an estimated:
- 4.4 million influenza illnesses
- 2.3 million influenza-associated medical visits
- 58,000 influenza-associated hospitalizations
- 3,500 influenza-associated deaths
The CDC recommends getting a flu vaccination in September or October. The CDC recommends annual flu vaccination for everyone six months and older with any licensed age-appropriate flu vaccine. Flu vaccines protect against the three or four viruses (depending on the vaccine) that research suggests will be most common.
Free flu shot program
The Christian Brothers Employee Benefit and Religious Medical Trusts in partnership with LabCorp offers a Free Flu Shot Program to its members. Free flu shots are available to employees and their dependents enrolled in the Employee Benefit Trust medical plan and all Religious Medical Trust members.
CBS encourages you to “Flex Your Defense and Get the Flu Shot!” There are four different opportunities to take advantage of the free flu shot program. You can attend an on-site clinic at your workplace; visit a local pharmacy; visit a local flu-shot clinic or make an appointment with your family physician.