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October 21, 2020

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Why getting a flu shot is especially vital during the coronavirus pandemic

Flu Shot

LM Otero / AP

Ana Farfan reacts to getting an influenza vaccine shot at Eastfield College in Mesquite, Texas, Thursday, Jan. 23, 2020.

The flu shot only protects against influenza, not COVID-19. But that’s still valuable as the flu season approaches and the coronavirus pandemic continues, according to health experts.

They urge people to get vaccinated against the flu not just to protect against the potentially miserable and serious illness but to mitigate the risk of a “twindemic” — a dual public health crisis that could swamp hospitals with both flu and COVID-19 patients.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention agrees.

Flu Shot

Registered Nurse Claudina Prince administers a flu shot at a Dekalb County health center in Decatur, Ga., Monday, Feb. 5, 2018. The U.S. government's latest flu report released on Friday, Feb. 2, 2018, showed flu season continued to intensify the previous week, with high volumes of flu-related patient traffic in 42 states, up from 39 the week before. (AP Photo/David Goldman) Launch slideshow »

In a yellow highlighted box on its flu-related web pages, punctuated by a bold exclamation point, it declares: “Getting a flu vaccine is more important than ever during 2020-2021 to protect yourself and the people around you from flu, and to help reduce the strain on health care systems responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Here is what you should know about the flu vaccine, and why you should consider getting one now.

Does the flu shot protect against COVID-19?

No. Flu and COVID-19 are different diseases caused by viruses in different families.

Influenza viruses cause “the flu,” typically in types A or B, according to the CDC. COVID-19 is caused by a coronavirus, specifically the strain “severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2,” or SARS-CoV-2.

Annual seasonal flu vaccines protect against influenza in the A and B subtypes. Vaccines may be updated from year to year based on the most current research, as the viruses are constantly changing; effectiveness varies, but a vaccine could reduce the risk of flu illness by as much as 40 to 60%, the CDC says.

Though development of a COVID-19 vaccine is underway, none is currently available.

Additionally, there is no evidence that a flu vaccine increases your risk of catching COVID-19, the CDC says.

Why should I still get a flu shot?

There will still be a flu season, and simultaneous flu and COVID-19 outbreaks could overwhelm the health care system, said Brian Labus, a UNLV epidemiologist and a member of Gov. Steve Sisolak’s COVID-19 medical advisory panel.

“It’s not like COVID has replaced all the other problems that are out there,” he said.

In addition to cutting the risk of catching and spreading the flu, a flu vaccine can protect you from getting the flu and COVID-19 at the same time or back to back, Labus said. And battling both diseases at or about the same time could have severe consequences, added Dr. Fermin Leguen, acting chief health officer with the Southern Nevada Health District.

When is the flu season, what have recent seasons looked like, and how severe could the next one be?

The CDC defines the flu season as October through May, with the peak typically occurring between December and February.

The Southern Nevada Health District recorded 1,400 confirmed flu cases in Clark County over the 2019-20 season with 54 related deaths, while the prior season saw 975 total cases and 39 deaths. That’s a 44% increase in cases and 38% increase in fatalities. (The Nevada Department of Health and Human Services notes that 2019-20 reporting might have been incomplete or delayed because of the response to COVID-19).

Leguen said it’s difficult to forecast the coming, or any, flu season; as the CDC notes, every flu season is different.

That said, the flu vaccine “is more important for health this year than ever before,” Leguen said.

Leguen and Labus said the steps people are already taking to lessen the spread of COVID-19 — like masks, frequent handwashing and physical distancing — could also blunt the impact of flu, a respiratory infection with similar symptoms and complications.

“The same mechanisms that spread COVID will spread flu,” Labus said.

Who should get vaccinated?

The CDC recommends everyone 6 months of age and older get an annual flu vaccine, especially those most at risk: children younger than age 5, seniors 65 and older, pregnant women, residents of nursing homes and other long-term care facilities, and people with chronic lung, heart, kidney, liver, blood, neurological or metabolic disorders, including diabetes, or who are immunocompromised for any reason, and those people’s caregivers or close contacts.

Labus suggests getting a flu shot as soon as they’re available. That means now, as the season officially starts in about four weeks and the body needs about two weeks to build up the protective antibodies contained in the vaccine.

Where can I get a flu shot?

Private doctors, pharmacies and public health clinics are already offering flu vaccines, many at low or no cost. Check with your provider for more details.

To make an appointment with a Southern Nevada Health District clinic, call 702-759-0850.