Spend most days at home? Get a flu shot anyway.

Fiona Waters

September 27, 2020

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You're right to assume that coronavirus mitigation efforts are also working to keep flu numbers down this year. Wearing a mask, social distancing, frequent hand-washing, and regular cleaning of surfaces reduce the number of viral particles spread from one person to another.

What's less intuitive is the idea that getting your flu shot this year is far more important than it has been in previous years. While the infection rate of the flu is low, it still kills between 30,000 and 60,000 Americans every year.

Reducing the number of influenza cases prevents hospitals and health staff from being overwhelmed with patients. As of July, multiple news sources, including The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal, reported that hospitals were at capacity. Yes, statistics show that some states have fallen in cases since then, but over half are rising in the number of cases per 100,000 people. Many states also have the same number of daily cases as they had in July.

If COVID-19 mimics what we know about other pandemics, it's possible that another wave will hit later this fall. Even without additional coronavirus patients, the flu is capable of overwhelming hospitals on its own. At the very least, getting a flu shot is kind to hospital staff, but it can also prevent you from requiring future medical care that may be expensive or even difficult to get.

On an intrapersonal level, there is no record of what a simultaneous infection with the flu and with coronavirus does to the body. Both are considered respiratory viruses, with the potential to cause pneumonia, fluid in the lungs, or respiratory failure.

The same groups of people who are susceptible to coronavirus are also susceptible to the flu, including immunocompromised individuals, the elderly, those with underlying conditions, and children. Getting vaccinated for the flu protects these populations from getting sick with both coronavirus and influenza.

Though a coronavirus vaccine is still in the works, the flu shot was 45% effective during the 2019-2020 season, with even higher levels of effectiveness in certain age groups. The CDC estimates that during the 2018-2019 season flu shots prevented "4.4 million cases of the flu, 58,000 hospitalizations, and 3,500 deaths… in a year that the vaccine was only 29% effective."

Approximately 45% of the U.S. population should be vaccinated to prevent a "twindemic," as it is called by The New York Times. If you're able to afford a flu shot, you should schedule it. Walgreens, CVS, Rite Aid, and most other local pharmacies often offer a free flu shot with insurance or at an extremely reduced price. Even if you don't have insurance, flu shots tend to be $45 or lower and can be combined with discounts. There may also be local events at churches and supermarkets.

Maybe you haven't personally been affected by COVID-19, so getting a flu shot isn't a priority. It's important to remember, however, that getting a flu shot doesn't just protect you; it also protects the people around you. Just like wearing a mask, doing something as simple as scheduling a flu shot can save lives. And right now, September and early October, is the best time of the year to get one.

Opinions expressed by the author are not necessarily those of WITI.

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