Each year, as the summer heat starts to cool down and students return to their textbooks, health care workers urge individuals to prepare themselves for the upcoming season by getting the flu shot. Medical professionals are encouraging this preventative act even more in 2020, emphasizing its importance in the presence of a pandemic.
“Influenza can be a very serious illness at any time, especially in the elderly, immunocompromised individuals or those individuals with pre-existing lung or heart disease,” said Richard Jordan, M.D., regional dean for the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center (TTUHSC) School of Medicine in Amarillo. Undoubtedly, the upcoming flu season puts those high-risk individuals in the stressful position of consciously avoiding two serious viruses at once.
It isn’t just the elderly and immunocompromised who should make the flu shot a priority. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that everyone six months and older receive a flu vaccination annually.
With COVID-19 still spreading rapidly across the country, these overlapping illnesses have raised concerns among health care professionals about co-infection. Jordan explained that this year, getting a flu vaccination is crucial for that very reason.
“The severity of each illness is magnified if someone has acquired both infections,” said Jordan. “Even young and active individuals may end up in the intensive care unit on a respirator if both infections occur together and these individuals are at a greater risk of death.”
There are those every year who dispute the importance of the flu shot, claiming it to be ineffective. According to Jordan, the current flu vaccine is approximately 45 percent effective against influenza A and 50 percent effective against influenza B. Even if that sounds like an imperfect vaccine, the effectiveness is similar to what we have seen over the last decade, which has helped it is much better than not getting one at all, and the effectiveness is similar to what has been seen over the last decade.
Additionally, many are understandably trying to avoid close contact with others as much as possible during this pandemic, as advised by the CDC. While it is wise to avoid unnecessary gatherings of people, Jordan pointed out that risking the spread of the flu is an even more serious danger.
It is important to overcome the fear of exposure and go to your health care provider, a pharmacy or the public health department to receive a flu vaccination,” said Jordan. “These providers will take great care to follow all safety protocols and the risk of acquiring coronavirus from exposure in this setting is very small. It is a much greater risk to not get a flu vaccination.”
Compared to the coronavirus, the flu seems like old news, which decreases a sense of urgency regarding protection from the virus. However, the flu hospitalizes several thousand people each year (810,000 people in the United States were hospitalized for the virus in the 2017-2018 flu season, according to the CDC). These types of numbers create a burden that the health care system does not need amid the current pandemic.
“Most years our health care system can handle the flu season and increased patient numbers with little difficulty,” said Jordan. “However with a pandemic such as we are seeing with coronavirus, the stress on our emergency rooms, our hospitals and our intensive units has been considerable. Some of our hospitals and intensive care units reached capacity.”
When looking to the future, Jordan warned that the combination of viruses does not look good for West Texas’s hospital system.
“If coronavirus peaks again during a heavy flu season, it is very possible we will need to set up many temporary field hospitals or convert appropriate buildings to temporary hospitals,” explained Jordan.
Even with the unknowns of the season ahead, Jordan highlighted the strength of our medical professionals, urging the community’s help and cooperation this upcoming flu season.
“The American health care system is innovative and focused,” Jordan said. “Vaccines against coronavirus and newer coronavirus treatments will help, and people getting their flu vaccinations will greatly help prevent this possible stress on the hospital system.”