Friends: The time has come. It’s the first day of fall, and you can partially fill the coronavirus-vaccine-shaped hole in your heart by getting a flu shot.
I got my flu shot on Monday. My arm still kind of hurts, but that’s OK, because now I’m less likely to get and spread the extremely shitty illness that is the flu. Isn’t that amazing? A cheap and widely available shot that protects your body from being attacked by a virus?
In a typical year, the seasonal flu sickens tens of millions of Americans, hospitalizes hundreds of thousands, and kills anywhere from 20,000 to 60,000. But 2020 is obviously no ordinary year, with the covid-19 pandemic—now officially having killed at least 200,000 Americans—still ongoing. New cases, hospitalizations and deaths attributed to covid-19 have been on the downswing in recent weeks, thankfully. But experts worry that the colder fall and winter weather and still-flailing public health response by the federal government will soon lead to a resurgence of the viral pandemic. Given that the usual flu season in the U.S. runs from October to March, that sets up a potential double whammy of influenza and a resurgent covid-19 hitting us at the same time.
We don’t have much evidence currently about how being infected with both viruses at once could affect someone; it’s possible that it could make a person sicker than having only one would. But leaving that aside, the two viral illnesses share many symptoms, like fever, sneezing, and fatigue, which could complicate efforts to identify or treat cases of either. Someone who mistakenly believes they have the milder flu, for instance, might not get tested for covid-19 or delay medical attention until it’s too late, while a flu case that only needs a bout of rest at home but is mistaken for covid-19 could tie up resources that might have been spent elsewhere. Since the flu still typically leads to hundreds of thousands of people needing hospitalization, that too could strain hospitals that are concurrently dealing with a covid-19 outbreak.
The flu vaccine is only partially effective at preventing the flu—its effectiveness varies from year to year—but it still prevents millions of flu cases a year, tens of thousands of hospitalizations, and thousands of deaths. And any fewer case of flu in 2020 is one less headache for hospitals, doctors, and just the average person to deal with. Elsewhere in the world, we’ve already seen the benefits of taking the flu more seriously this year.
In Australia, which experiences the flu season during April to October, the flu has been remarkably mild in 2020. Much of that is due to social distancing restrictions in the country that have limited the spread of covid-19. But local health officials have also credited the record uptick in flu vaccinations by Australians. Countries in South America have similarly experienced lower rates of the flu this year.
Right now, the U.S. does seem to have started containing the summer peak of the pandemic’s first wave through a balance of increased social distancing, masking, and possibly some population immunity. Optimistically, the country could be positioned to ride out the pandemic without any further large waves through these same measures, which would weaken the flu’s annual grip on us as a bonus. But it won’t take much for the U.S. to slide back into dangerous territory. If the history of pandemics in the past 100 years is any judge, then a second wave of covid-19 is likely. In that case, being protected against the flu is all the more helpful, especially to protect vulnerable members of the community.
There’s no clear consensus on when you should get the flu shot (or nasal spray version) this year, though everyone over the age of 6 months is eligible for the vaccine, barring rare exceptions like an allergy to its ingredients. The vaccine does tend to wane in effectiveness later on in the winter if taken in early fall, but deciding to get it later leaves you at risk of catching the flu in the meantime (that said, even getting it late in the winter can be helpful, so don’t feel like it’s too late). What matters most is that you do get the vaccine at some point, especially if you are in or have contact with someone in a high-risk group, such as the elderly or those with chronic health conditions like asthma and diabetes. In my case, I simply got a free flu shot during my weekly trip to the supermarket.
If you’ve ever had the flu, you know how much it sucks. It’s way worse than a cold. It kills tens of thousands of Americans every year. You don’t want to get the flu this year, so go get that shot.