It’s a tradition that rolls around like clockwork every autumn as the days get shorter and the shadows get longer, able to touch everyone age 1 to 92... flu season. This year, it’s got an even deadlier teammate in COVID-19. Together – and yes, you can get both even at the same time – they pose a serious and challenging health crisis.
“They're both airway viruses,” said Dr. Dan Kent, Chief Medical Officer at UnitedHealthcare. “They get in through your nose and throat and they both hit you in the lungs pretty hard. I certainly don't want both of them together.
“It really would have been nice if we could have knocked down COVID a whole lot more than we did, but we didn't. Here we are. We've got both viruses in the community, flu is surging in a very predictable way, slowly through the rest of this month, and then it'll take off – Thanksgiving spreads it.”
In many ways, the coronavirus pandemic has given us tools to also combat the flu – frequent hand washing, masks, and social distancing are all ways to protect yourself from the seasonal influenza.
But there’s one crucial weapon available in the war on flu that is still months away for COVID: a flu vaccine.
“COVID is around so you want to protect yourself as much as you can from both of the viruses,” Dr. Kent said. “The flu shot is very effective. And it's all the more important to not worry about side effects and go ahead and get the shot. The side effects are minor. The flu shot’s been widely tested over many years, so it has a very strong safety record. There are occasional problems, but if you're a betting person, a flu shot is a very good bet.”
Kent went on to say the flu vaccine was made stronger than in prior years -- the strains of influenza it protects against has increased from three to four. There’s an even higher potency for people 65 and older.
Venturing out to get your flu shot may seem like a worrisome task, but the risks of getting sick during that one trip versus the benefits of vaccination make it a no-brainer.
“It's a small risk, and you can manage the risk of traveling to get your flu shot,” he said. “They’re widely available at pharmacies and doctor’s offices, and both of those institutions are smart about social distancing and you've got to wear a mask when you go.”
The push to get the flu shot is not just conjecture. Australia has already gone through its flu season, during what is our summer, at the same time as COVID. All the safety measures taken to combat the coronavirus coupled with widespread vaccination meant a relatively mild flu season.
Bottom line: you don’t want either of these diseases.
“They both get in through our upper airways, so you start with congestion, cough,” Kent said. “They both get down into the major airways in the lungs. With flu you get a deep cough. COVID keeps on going down into the lungs and causes the deep pneumonia, and that's when it really gets dangerous.
“If you go on to the COVID pneumonia, that's a whole other ball game. It's a much more serious problem.”
For more information on where and how to get a flu shot, visit United Healthcare’s website.