With much attention rightly focused on the COVID-19 vaccines, there’s a risk that the onset of the flu season and the importance of flu vaccines may be overlooked. Seasonal influenza and the coronavirus are not the same, of course. But both can be very serious, although COVID-19 has a much higher death toll and in many cases has led to long-term symptoms and complications that are as yet unclear. And both, too, are contagious respiratory illnesses that can present many similar symptoms, including fever, aches, chills and shortness of breath.
The benefit of flu vaccines has long been apparent. They are developed each year to protect against the viruses expected to be most common during the upcoming flu season. As such, even if they may not prevent all cases of the flu, medical and public health experts say they substantially reduce the risk of catching and spreading the flu and can meaningfully lessen the severity of symptoms and the likelihood of hospitalization.
But the case for getting a flu vaccine is even more compelling as we head into flu season with the delta variant still running rampant. Locally, Cheshire Medical Center CEO Dr. Don Caruso has begun sounding the alarm about the recent rise in COVID case loads that he worries might, if unchecked, stretch hospital resources and overtax its professional staff. And that risk, he fears, will remain even if the current surge plateaus because, he recently told The Sentinel, COVID-19 vaccination rates have stagnated and the coronavirus is likely to spread more readily in the coming months with people staying inside and due to holiday travel.
A serious outbreak of influenza will only heighten those worries and further stretch available resources. Last year, serious cases of the flu were unusually rare in the region — Cheshire Medical saw none, and Brattleboro Memorial Hospital reported a very low number. A significant contributor to the low incidence was the masking and social-distancing precautions that were mandated during flu season. But the greater willingness of people to get a flu shot also played a role, and that needs to continue.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends an annual flu vaccination for everyone 6 months or older, with a few exceptions. In this area, Cheshire Medical will be conducting drive-through flu shot clinics on two upcoming Saturdays, Oct. 9 and Oct. 23 (for information on making an appointment, go to www.cheshiremed.org/flu), and a shot can be obtained during a primary or urgent care visit. Also, many area pharmacies are offering flu shots either on a walk-in basis or by appointment.
Getting a flu shot is safe for those who have already been vaccinated against COVID-19, reports Cheshire Medical infectious disease physician Dr. Aalok Khole. And for those not yet vaccinated against COVID-19, why not consider going for a two-fer, as the CDC reports it is safe and effective to get a flu and COVID-19 shot at the same time.
It would, of course, help if masking and social-distancing precautions continued to be observed when out in the public or in gatherings. But there will unfortunately be less general observance of those as we head into this year’s flu season. That makes getting a flu shot even more important, both to protect yourself and others and to help ease the strain COVID is placing on medical providers.