With fall and winter on the horizon, health experts are preparing for the possibility that there will be not one but two highly contagious viruses in circulation at the same time. As states throughout the country continue to report positive cases of the novel coronavirus, the United States' annual flu season is also fast approaching. But with all the social distancing, hand washing, and face masks happening now to limit the spread of COVID-19 is a flu shot necessary this year? According to the World Health Organization (WHO), getting a flu vaccine is more important this year than ever.
While circulation of flu viruses appears to have been low in the Southern Hemisphere, which experiences its seasons opposite the Northern Hemisphere where the United States lies, international health experts are hesitant to assume other regions will see a similarly low circulation. Experts warn health systems could easily be overwhelmed when the seasonal flu converges with the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
"It could complicate the clinical picture, but there are tools that are in place for influenza," Maria Van Kerkhove, the WHO's technical lead for COVID-19 said in a news briefing Tuesday. "So it is really, really important than when the vaccine becomes available for flu, that people do take that vaccine."
According to WHO, influenza continues to be one of the world's greatest public health challenges with an estimated 1 billion cases reported throughout the world each and every year. Of those 1 billion cases, some 3 to 5 million are classified as severe and 290,000 to 650,000 of those cases end in influenza-related respiratory deaths. WHO recommends regular flu vaccines as "the most effective way to prevent influenza."
This year, however, flu vaccines may be particularly important as treatment for severe cases of both influenza and COVID-19 require much of the same medical equipment, like ventilators, which are already in limited supply in many states. Testing resources may also become overwhelmed as medical professionals seek to differentiate between patients that have the flu and those with COVID-19, two contagious respiratory illnesses the CDC has reported share some similar symptoms.
According to the CDC, both COVID-19 and the flu can cause cough, fatigue, headache, sore throat, body aches, fever or chills, runny or stuffy nose, shortness of breath or difficulty breathing, and vomiting or diarrhea (a symptom more common in children). One symptom that appears to be specific to COVID-19, however, is a change or loss in the sense of smell or taste.
Of course, WHO is not the only public health agency urging people to get a flu vaccine this year. In June, CNN reported CDC Director Robert Redfield said getting a flu shot could save lives. "This fall, before the seasonal circulation of influenza increase, I encourage the American people to be prepared and to embrace flu vaccination with confidence for yourself, your families in the communities," he said, according to CNN. "This single act will save lives."
Some states have even moved to make flu shots mandatory for school-aged children. In Massachusetts, for example, state public health officials announced Wednesday that influenza vaccinations would be mandatory for children who are enrolled in child care, pre-school, kindergarten, K-12, college or university classes within the state.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has recommended everyone 6 months and older receive a flu shot. But before you schedule your and your family for vaccinations, know that when you obtain your flu shot matters. The CDC has said it's best to get vaccinated for the flu by the end of October in order to start flu season protected.
If you think you’re showing symptoms of coronavirus, which include fever, shortness of breath, and cough, call your doctor before going to get tested. If you’re anxious about the virus’s spread in your community, visit the CDC for up-to-date information and resources, or seek out mental health support. You can find all of Romper’s parents + coronavirus coverage here.