The Covid-19 pandemic has dominated the headlines for 18 months — and rightly so. But there is another respiratory virus that still demands our full attention.
I’m referring to the all-too-common influenza, a viral infection that can be deadly, especially in high-risk groups. The flu has been a health concern for centuries, and it’s not going away any time soon. The good news is that an annual vaccine can help prevent the flu and limit its complications.
Getting a flu shot is particularly important now because we want to do everything we can to minimize having two respiratory outbreaks circulating simultaneously in our community.
Health officials worry that infection with one could increase the severity of the other. It’s also possible that infection with one could weaken the immune system and increase susceptibility to the other.
On its own, influenza is to be taken very seriously. In the year before Covid, the CDC estimated that influenza infections sent around 500,000 people to the hospital. Such an outbreak now could quickly overwhelm communities, especially smaller ones such as ours, which is served by Mee Memorial Healthcare System.
Another reason to get a flu shot this year is because both SARS-CoV-2 and influenza are respiratory viruses with similar early symptoms. Experiencing symptoms of flu could lead patients to seek Covid testing. Increasing immunization levels against influenza will help reduce flu infections and avoid needless Covid testing. On the other hand, mistakenly thinking cases of Covid-19 are due to influenza might lead to insufficient isolation periods and increased transmission of SARS-CoV-2.
There is still another good reason to get a flu vaccine every year. Flu viruses are constantly changing, so vaccines may be updated from one season to the next to protect against the viruses that research suggests will be common during the upcoming flu season. Remember, your protection from a flu vaccine declines over time, so yearly vaccination is needed for the best protection.
Aside from the flu vaccine, there are other ways to help protect against the virus.
We’ve all spent many months practicing social distancing, hand washing and mask-wearing. Those practices are also protective against influenza.
The fight must continue on all fronts. A Covid-19 vaccine is not effective against influenza, and the reverse is equally true. Vaccine “fatigue” combined with rampant misinformation about vaccines in general should not get in the way of public health.
Also, just because last season’s flu circulation was minimal does not mean influenza cannot ravage communities right alongside SARS-CoV-2.
That’s why MMHS vaccinates all staff, contractors and vendors, in addition to patients, as we identify their needs for one shot each year against the flu. It is both safe and effective.
For the King City or Greenfield clinics, influenza vaccinations are available by patient appointment only. The dates set for each clinic are as follows: Fridays from 2 to 5 p.m. (Oct. 1 and 15; Nov. 5 and 19; Dec. 3 and 17); and Sundays from 8 to 11 a.m. (Oct. 3 and 17; Nov. 7 and 21; Dec. 5 and 19).
Other large free clinics through Monterey County Public Health will be announced. Mee Memorial can assist with specific locations receiving vaccines. And business owners and community groups may contact us for referrals or small-group clinics.
In addition to clinics, we also refer individuals to our local pharmacies. When signing up there, it is usually as a walk-in.
The flu shot is a single shot conferring immunity for the season from typically October through March of each year. According to the CDC, everyone 6 months and older should get a flu vaccine every season with rare exceptions. Vaccination is particularly important for people who are at high risk of serious complications from the flu.
Flu vaccination has important benefits. It can reduce flu illnesses, doctors’ visits, and missed work and school due to flu, as well as prevent flu-related hospitalizations and deaths.
Different flu vaccines are approved for use in different groups of people:
- There are flu shots approved for use in children as young as 6 months old and flu shots approved for use in adults 65 years and older.
- Flu shots also are recommended and approved for use in pregnant women and people with certain chronic health conditions.
- The nasal spray flu vaccine is approved for use in non-pregnant individuals who are 2 years through 49 years of age. People with certain medical conditions should not receive the nasal spray flu vaccine, and should follow the recommendations of their physician.
We should get a flu vaccine before flu viruses begin spreading in the community, since it takes about two weeks after vaccination for antibodies to develop in the body and provide protection against flu.
There was no change in CDC’s recommendation on timing of vaccination last flu season. Getting vaccinated in July or August is too early, especially for older people, because of the likelihood of reduced protection against flu later in the flu season. September and October are good times to get vaccinated. However, as long as flu viruses are circulating, vaccination should continue, even in January or later.
If you have questions about which flu vaccine to get, talk to your doctor or other health care professional. More information is available on the CDC website cdc.gov.
Finally, people always ask: Is the flu vaccine safe? Flu vaccines have a remarkable safety record. Hundreds of millions of Americans have safely received flu vaccines over the past 50 years. Extensive research supports the safety of seasonal flu vaccines. Each year, CDC works with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and other partners to ensure the highest safety standards for flu vaccines.
Flu shots are made using killed flu viruses (for inactivated vaccines), or without flu virus at all (for the recombinant vaccine). Simply put: You cannot get the flu from a flu shot. Some minor side effects that may occur include soreness, redness and/or swelling where the shot was given, low grade fever and aches.
The viruses in nasal spray flu vaccines are weakened and do not cause the severe symptoms often associated with influenza illness. For adults, side effects from the nasal spray may include runny nose, headache, sore throat, and cough. For children, side effects may also include wheezing, vomiting, muscle aches, and fever. If these problems occur, they are usually mild and go away on their own, but serious reactions are also possible. Almost all people who receive the flu vaccine have no serious problems from it.
Remember, in the face of this uncertainty, the usual adage prevails: “prevention is better than cure.” The best measure we can take is to get our influenza vaccine.