It’s more important than ever this year.
The US may have gotten lucky during the early days of the coronavirus pandemic. While the first COVID-19 case was diagnosed on January 20, 2020, cities didn’t see larger outbreaks until well into March, right after the typical flu season’s peak ended. What’s happened since has been horrendous, of course—more than four million confirmed cases and 145,000 deaths have been caused by COVID-19—but in the crucial first months of the pandemic in the US, the two illnesses just missed each other.
Unfortunately, that may not be the case for the upcoming flu season. COVID-19 cases continue to soar throughout the US, and with the seasonal influenza peak just months away, both illnesses could run rampant at the same time—something that the public, health officials, and essential workers aren’t ready for.
There are systems currently put in place to protect us, of course; face mask recommendations, virtual learning, working from home, and cancelled events can help ease the spread of both viruses. But does that mean our number one safeguard for flu season—the annual influenza shot—has been rendered ineffective? In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, many people are wondering: Are flu shots necessary this year, and is it even safe to go out in public and get one, risking COVID-19 exposure?
The resounding answer here: Yes, flu shots are still absolutely essential this year—even if that means you have to go out into society to get it, according to infectious diseases experts. “Everyone should get their flu shot,” Jennifer Lighter, MD, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at NYU Langone, tells Health. Your best, healthiest option is to still schedule your flu shot for late September or early October (definitely before Halloween), for the flu season that peaks between December and February.
In fact, it’s even more important to get it this year, for multiple reasons. First up: It’s definitely possible to have the flu and COVID-19 at the same time, and while we still don’t have a large body of research on the effects of the new coronavirus, it’s a pretty safe bet that having both at once decreases chances of survival, Waleed Javaid, MD, director of infection prevention and control at Mount Sinai Downtown in New York, tells Health. “We have seen people who had both COVID and influenza—and were critically ill,” Dr. Javaid says.
It’s also worth noting that the flu can weaken your body to the point that it’s more susceptible to the coronavirus, Dr. Lighter says. After you’ve had the flu, your immune system isn’t as strong as it was before your body contracted the virus, which means it may not fight off COVID-19 as easily as it would otherwise.
Something else you may not necessarily consider: Getting the flu could increase your risk of coming into contact with COVID-19: If you make a few trips to the doctor or the pharmacy because you have the flu—or you’re actually hospitalized because of the virus—that, too, increases your chances of contracting COVID-19, Dr. Javaid says. On that note, it’s essential to be mindful of what a great deal of flu hospitalizations could do to a health care facility already overburdened with COVID-19 cases, Dr. Lighter says. “We have to think of the capacity of our health care system,” she explains.
COVID-19 risks aside, it’s also important to remember that the flu on its own is a very dangerous illness: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that during the 2019-2020 flu season as many as 62,000 people in the US died from flu, and the virus caused up to 740,000 hospitalizations. “Flu in itself is a very dangerous illness,” Dr. Javaid says. “Flu can cause death [and] has been devastating for kids, the elderly, [and] everyone in between,” he explains. And while it’s still possible to get the flu even if you’ve had the flu shot, you’re much less likely to suffer from severe disease—read: end up on a ventilator—if you have the flu but you got the vaccine.
So while it might be tempting to skip or put off your yearly flu shot, it’s in your best interest—and everybody else’s, medical personnel included—that you don’t. “I have kids as well, and absolutely I’ll get them and myself vaccinated. There’s no reason to believe the flu season is going to be mild,” Dr. Javaid says. And, since the result of having COVID and the flu at the same time can be devastating no matter how healthy you are: “The flu shot’s more important this year than ever,” Dr. Lighter adds.