Arm bandaged after getting a flu shot

Credit: iStock/SDI Productions

With the novel coronavirus still infecting thousands of people a day, public health officials worry that a bad flu season could overwhelm hospitals and clinics that are already stretched thin.

The best thing you can do to make sure that doesn’t happen: Get a flu shot.

The flu shot is now widely available, and virtually all insurance plans cover the cost. Some health care providers are even offering the safety and convenience of getting vaccinated at an outdoor drive-up or walk-up location.

The life you save could be your own

Flu vaccine information with doctor graphic
Credit: University of California

If helping our overtaxed health care system isn’t reason enough to get vaccinated, consider the fact that it could actually save your life. 34,000 people died of influenza during the 2018-2019 flu season and nearly half a million others were hospitalized.

Getting a flu vaccine is the most important thing you can do to protect yourself from flu and its most serious complications. And it could also help ensure that you don’t contract COVID-19 and the flu at the same time.

Doctors don’t yet know what will happen to patients with that kind of dual diagnosis, said UC San Francisco epidemiologist George Rutherford.

What is clear is that the flu and COVID-19 both target the lung, he said.

“And to the extent that the lungs are damaged by one disease and the other one comes along and damages it more, you can get into trouble faster,” he said.

He added that it’s also known that influenza can make you more susceptible to infection by other pathogens. “In fact, a lot of the deaths of the 1918 flu pandemic were probably from staphylococcal pneumonia as a superinfection on top of influenza pneumonia,” he said.

Do it for your loved ones

Still not convinced that you should get a flu shot? Think about doing it for the people you love.

Flu is highly contagious, and particularly dangerous for the elderly, people with underlying health conditions, and children. The greater the number of people who get vaccinated, the better protected these vulnerable populations will be.

“If you get influenza, you may be putting your loved ones — the very young, the very old, such as your children, parents and grandparents — at risk,” said Charles Chiu, M.D., Ph.D., an infectious disease expert at UC San Francisco.

“I think it’s important to realize that taking the vaccine is not just for you, it’s also to prevent spreading the virus to others. So, on a community level, the more people that are vaccinated, the fewer overall cases we’re going to get.”

Graphic with flu vaccine information on it
Click to download a larger version.
Credit: University of California

Still not sure about getting a flu vaccine this year?

This Q&A from Nina Bai and UCSF sets the record straight on common myths. Read their full article on the flu shot here.

In a typical flu season, less than half of Americans get a flu shot, putting themselves and their loved ones at risk of a preventable disease.

Some people may have doubts about vaccine efficacy. Others think the flu is no big deal. And during COVID-19, some worry about the risks of going to a doctor’s office.

We asked the experts about these common concerns.

I’m not sure about getting a flu vaccine because …

1. Going to the doctor’s office seems risky during COVID-19.

“The risk at a doctor’s office is very likely to be much less than the risk of going out to a supermarket or a crowded location,” said Chiu. That’s because health care workers are vigilant about taking the appropriate precautions. Most documented COVID-19 outbreaks have occurred in gatherings where people were not adhering to standard precautions like mask wearing and social distancing. “This is exactly the opposite of a controlled situation such as the doctor’s office,” said Chiu.

Experts say local pharmacies are also safe settings to get a flu shot.

Like any activity during COVID-19, it’s about balancing the risks and benefits. “The benefits of getting a vaccine far outweigh the very, very low risk of one visit to a doctor’s office while wearing a mask and social distancing,” said Chiu.

2. I’m already social distancing and wearing a mask, so I won’t catch the flu.

It’s true that your risk of catching the flu is much less if you wear a mask and social distance one hundred percent of the time, said Chiu, but “we know that people get tired of these measures” and may not always be rigorous.

As colder weather sets in, more activities will move indoors where transmission is more likely. At the same time, more states may be opening up and lifting restrictions, more people will be going back to work and kids going to back to school. “Although the risks might be low now that people are still behaving, the worry is that it’s going to change,” said Chiu. “It only takes one episode where you forget to wear your mask, or choose not to, that can put you and others at risk.”

3. I heard the flu season is going to be mild this year

It’s true that Australia, where the flu season peaks from June to August, has so far seen a much milder flu season, but that’s likely due to social distancing, travel restrictions, and a higher than usual vaccination rate.

Those factors may not translate to the colder temperatures and variable mitigation measures across the U.S. The risk will also fall disproportionately on essential workers who don’t have the luxury of sheltering at home, said Chiu.

“My worry isn’t that we’re going to have an overwhelming flu season,” said Chiu, “My worry is that even a mild flu season may be enough to tip our health care system over the edge.”

4. The flu vaccine isn’t very effective anyway.

The effectiveness of the flu vaccine varies from year to year depending on how closely we’ve guessed the strains, but we won’t know the effectiveness of this year’s vaccine until the flu season is over next spring, said Chiu. It’s too early even to glean from the Southern hemisphere, which is still in its flu season.

“What’s valuable about the vaccine is that even if it is, say, only 50 percent protective one year, it has been shown that getting the vaccine may decrease the severity of illness and your risk of being hospitalized for influenza,” said Chiu.

Besides the personal benefit, getting a flu vaccine also contributes to the wider public health effort. “I think it’s important to realize that taking the vaccine is not just for you, it’s also to prevent spreading the virus to others,” he said. “So on a community level, the more people that are vaccinated, the fewer overall cases we’re going to get.”

5. I’m young and healthy, so the flu isn’t dangerous for me.

“People die of influenza at all age groups,” said Rutherford. “It causes a lot of morbidity and mortality.”

“Even in someone who is young and healthy, influenza can put them out of work for one to two weeks because of the fever and overwhelming fatigue,” said Chiu. “It’s not a disease that you want to get.”

Another reason for young people to get the flu shot, said Chiu, is to protect those who are more vulnerable. You can spread the virus to others even before you are overtly symptomatic. “If you get influenza, you may be putting your loved ones — the very young, the very old, such as your children, parents, and grandparents — at risk.”

6. The vaccine contains harmful chemicals and can cause disease.

“The components of a flu vaccine have been extensively studied and vetted by not only the CDC, but also the FDA, and the data show overwhelmingly that these vaccines are safe and effective,” said Chiu.

“Just like any vaccine, there’s a possibility of some soreness or redness at the site of the shot, or low-grade fever and aches,” said Chiu. “But flu vaccines do not cause flu and they do not cause conditions like autism.”