The vaccine we’ve been hearing about for most of the year is, of course, the COVID-19 vaccine. But the flu vaccine is also important right now, according to Steven Lawrence, MD, Washington University infectious diseases physician at Barnes-Jewish Hospital, and Ericka Hayes, MD, Washington University pediatric infectious diseases physician at St. Louis Children’s Hospital.
Dr. Lawrence and Dr. Hayes participated in a Facebook Live Sept. 30, answering viewers’ questions, debunking myths and misinformation about both vaccines, and providing the information you need to keep your family safe during this year’s overlapping COVID-19 and flu seasons. Here are some of the highlights.
What kind of flu season can we expect this year?
“Last year was the mildest flu season we’ve had in the past 100 years,” said Dr. Lawrence. “And it was due to the masking and social distancing we were doing to stay safe from COVID-19. But, with the current relaxation on both masking and social distancing, this fall the flu could make a comeback — and I would almost guarantee, with 100% certainty, this flu season will be worse than last year’s flu season.”
Dr. Lawrence added that many people typically are exposed to the flu each year. “But, when you go a year and a half without seeing any flu, some of that immunity might wane,” he said. “After all this time with very little flu exposure, the immunity our population has right now is likely lower than most years.
“When you combine those two things, we have a fair amount of concern that this could be a pretty bad flu season.”
His advice? “Get your flu shot.”
When should I get a flu shot?
Now is the perfect time to get your flu shot, both doctors said.
“The flu season usually starts around Halloween, peaks around the Super Bowl and usually ends around Easter,” Dr. Lawrence said. “Since it hasn’t arrived yet, now is the perfect time to get the flu vaccine because there’s very little flu circulating yet — but we know it’s coming.”
Dr. Hayes added that it typically takes about two weeks after vaccination to achieve immunity against the flu — another reason to schedule your flu shot now.
And it’s perfectly OK to get the flu vaccine and the COVID-19 vaccine at the same time, on the same day, said Dr. Lawrence, who recommended getting one vaccine in one arm and the other vaccine in the opposite arm.
Who is most at risk of getting a severe case of the flu?
“It is recommended that everyone 6 months and older receive an annual influenza vaccine,” said Dr. Hayes. “Those who are most at risk for getting severe flu include children under the age of 5, especially children younger than 1 year of age, as well as adults 65 years and older and those who are immunocompromised, such as those undergoing chemotherapy, who have had an organ transplant, who are on medicines that suppress their immune system, and individuals who have renal, pulmonary or cardiac issues. Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding should also get the flu vaccine.”
“Women who are pregnant are about five times more likely to be hospitalized or die from the flu,” Dr. Lawrence said. “If anything, the flu vaccine and COVID vaccines are more important during pregnancy than for others who are of the same age.”
“That’s why we also strongly recommend the COVID-19 vaccine for anyone who is planning to become pregnant, is pregnant or is breastfeeding,” Dr. Hayes added.
Dr. Hayes also noted that infants younger than 6 months of age aren’t able to be vaccinated against the flu. “I would strongly encourage families with newborns to make sure parents, grandparents and everyone who’s going to be around the child gets the flu and COVID-19 vaccines, to build a circle of vaccination protection around them.”
How do I know if I have the flu? What if it’s COVID-19?
Most of the time when you have the flu, you know it, Dr. Lawrence said. “If you have a sudden onset of symptoms such as fever, body aches, headache and feel like you got hit by a truck, then it is most likely the flu,” he said. “If you lost your taste or smell, then it is probably COVID. But there’s enough overlap with both, so the best thing to do is to get tested.”
Flu symptoms in older kids are similar to those in adults — such as fever, body aches and irritability — Dr. Hayes said. For infants, fever, irritability and not eating well could be signs of the flu.
“It is possible to have more than one virus at the same time,” Dr. Hayes added. “In order to lessen that risk, get both the flu and COVID vaccines.”
What else can I do to prevent the flu?
“The flu is spread almost exactly the same way COVID-19 is spread — contact with respiratory droplets that come out of the mouth,” Dr. Lawrence said. “The best way to prevent getting the flu is to get vaccinated. And, we learned from last year that the COVID-19 precautions we took also helped prevent the flu.”
Dr. Hayes agreed. “To prevent the flu or COVID-19, use proper hand hygiene, practice social distancing and wear a mask,” she said. “Even if you are masking and social distancing, however, you’ll still want to get the vaccines to lower your chances of getting sick. And don’t go out if you’re sick. If you’re sick or your children are sick, please stay home from work or school to prevent spreading the illness to others.”
What do the next several months look like?
“There is good news in the pipeline,” Dr. Hayes said. “There’s been a lot in the news lately about vaccines for kids, especially COVID-19, for kids younger than 12. The Pfizer data looks good for efficacy and safety for that age group. So, hopefully, for the 5- to 11-year-olds at least, the best-case scenario is that we might be able to recommend vaccination for them as early as November.”
“We are closer to the end of the pandemic than the beginning,” added Dr. Lawrence. “We’ve got to hang tight for another few months, get through the winter, get through the season when flu could be hitting at the same time, and I think things will look better in the spring.
“And to help make sure we all emerge from the winter happy and healthy, I would encourage everyone who hasn’t gotten their COVID vaccine to do so. And get the flu vaccine. Do the things that we can do to look out for each other,” he said. “Do it for yourself and do it for each other. We are all in this together.”
See the complete Facebook Live with Dr. Lawrence and Dr. Hayes.