OMAHA — Doctors are encouraging people to get a flu shot now instead of waiting a month or two.
The goal is to help people — and the health care system — avoid a simultaneous run of flu and COVID-19, a possibility some are calling a “twindemic.”
“I think it’s important this year to get it early so we’re protected during the fall and wintertime,” said Dr. Renuga Vivekanandan, an associate professor at Creighton University and chief of infectious diseases at Creighton and CHI Health.
“Any time you get it from now on is probably fine,” said Dr. Jasmine Marcelin, an assistant professor at the University of Nebraska Medical Center and infectious diseases physician at Nebraska Medicine.
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says September and October are good times to get vaccinated for flu. The agency recommends that everyone 6 months and older get the shot, particularly those who are at higher risk of complications should they get the flu. Those groups include people older than 65, those with underlying health conditions such as asthma and diabetes, and pregnant women.
Marcelin said those in such groups who may be thinking about putting off the shot should discuss it with their health care provider.
“The sweet spot,” she said, “is trying to time it so right before the number of flu cases are starting to rise in your community, you’ll have two weeks of lag time to build your immunity.”
Dr. Tom Safranek, Nebraska’s state epidemiologist, said the Southern Hemisphere, now in winter, is seeing a milder-than-normal flu season. Some experts think that may be a result of the hand-washing and social distancing being done to mitigate COVID-19.
But flu seasons are hard to predict, Vivekanandan said, and it’s important that people get the flu vaccine not only to protect themselves but also to preserve the health care system.
Influenza kills between 12,000 and 60,000 people each year in the U.S., according to the CDC. Between 140,000 and 810,000 people are hospitalized with the flu each year.
“If we are able to get vaccinated, and everyone does masking and distancing, I think we’re going to be in a good place,” Vivekanandan said.
Getting the flu shot means that people are protected as much as possible from influenza. While the flu shot doesn’t always prevent infection with the influenza virus, it typically results in a milder illness and in fewer hospitalizations and deaths.
If those vaccinated against flu do get COVID-19, Marcelin said, they’re less at risk of getting the flu on top of it. Such double whammies, which doctors call co-infection, occur occasionally with viruses.
“In people with medical problems, they can have worse outcomes than people who just got one or the other,” Marcelin said.
Safranek said he has not heard any concerns about shortages of flu vaccine this year, even with the added push for vaccination. According to the CDC, manufacturers expect to provide as many as 198 million doses, up from the record 175 million doses produced last season.
Cindy Ruma, a nurse with the Visiting Nurse Association, said the organization is seeing greater interest in flu shots this year.
“We’ll adapt as needs change,” she said.
As for the flu shot itself, there are plenty of options available this year, Safranek said.
The high-dose version recommended for people 65 and older will protect against four influenza strains instead of the three included last year. A version with an adjuvant, or immune booster, is also available.
Those who don’t like needles can opt for the nasal spray vaccine, available for most peoples ages 2 to 49. But those with a cold or nasal congestion should not get the spray vaccine, Marcelin said, because it won’t be as effective. An egg-free version of the vaccine is also available for those with egg allergies.
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