Along with autumn’s changing leaves, this time of year also brings flu season. Experts are predicting 2020’s flu season is bound to be one for the books due to the coronavirus pandemic. Because of the pandemic, health experts are urging everyone to get the flu shot to help mitigate the spread of illness. Doctors warn that the combination of having the flu and COVID-19 could have deadly results.
“There’s just so much that we don’t know about the coronavirus, and the fact that you could certainly develop the flu and the coronavirus at the same time — it’s something that we’ve just not had to deal with before,” said Dr. Collis Barksdale of Bon Secours Powdersville Primary Care, who stresses the importance of getting the flu shot.
“By receiving the vaccine, even if you do get the flu, you’re much less likely to have a severe complication or severe symptoms requiring hospitalization or an emergency department visit,” says Dr. Saria Saccocio, ambulatory chief medical officer at Prisma Health. She says getting both the flu and COVID-19 would be “catastrophic” for some people due to the danger of both illnesses compounding one another.
Since the pandemic began, the novel coronavirus has been compared to influenza viruses. In part, that’s because they have similar disease presentations causing respiratory disease. Symptoms from those illnesses can range from severe to minor. Both the flu and coronavirus are primarily spread through contact and droplets, according to the World Health Organization.
A significant difference between the two appears to be the mortality rate. COVID-19 has a mortality ratio — calculated as the number of deaths divided by the number of cases — of about 4%. However, WHO cites that the ratio for the seasonal flu is below 0.1%. Another difference is that COVID-19 is caused by the 2019 coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, while the flu is caused by several variant types of influenza viruses.
But the key difference is that the flu has a vaccine. The flu shot has the ability to prevent some of the more dangerous strands of the flu or at least reduce its severity. There is no vaccine for COVID-19 right now — though the race is on to develop one.
“With the [flu] vaccine, we can certainly significantly minimize the number of people who die from the flu, and that’s precisely what has happened,” says Barksdale. The flu shot is developed based on estimates of the upcoming flu season and what variations are expected.
For those concerned about receiving the flu shot, both Saccocio and Barksdale say it’s perfectly safe and it’s not going to make you sick with the flu.
“The vaccine itself is an extremely safe vaccine,” says Barksdale. “The benefits far, far outweigh some of the minimal side effects that can occur from it.”
Saccocio says that it takes a couple of weeks for the vaccine to have a “full immune response” against the flu. In that time, you could get a cold or a respiratory virus. “You could have been exposed to the flu — that’s why it’s important to get that flu vaccine early this season.”
Flu season starts around October and lasts until around March.