Now, especially, is the time to make sure you get your flu shot, according to local experts.
It’s not likely that you’ll find a doctor who won’t urge a patient to get an annual flu shot in a normal year, mind you. However, the world has even more reason to keep hospital beds open at the moment because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“Any way that we can prevent any kind of respiratory illness is important,” said Patricia Sung, manager of infection prevention at USC Verdugo Hills Hospital. “Even under normal circumstances, it’s pretty important to get the flu shot.”
The flu, much like COVID-19, is a respiratory illness that can become incapacitating and fatal if not treated and when exacerbated by other conditions. Although some studies have indicated that individuals infected with both illnesses have twice the mortality rate, Sung said the actual data isn’t there yet.
“We don’t have a lot of data on co-infections,” she said. “We expected to see a bit of it at the beginning of the pandemic because it was right in the middle of our flu season. This flu season will be very interesting, I think, in part because testing is so much more widely available.”
Dr. Chastity Jennings-Nunez, site director of obstetrics at Adventist Health Glendale, added in a statement that pregnant and postpartum women have higher risk of severe complications from the flu. Pregnant women who become infected with COVID-19 also have experienced severe complications; the Los Angeles Times recently featured two women who were put into induced comas while pregnant and underwent cesarean sections while in those comas.
“With COVID-19 still wreaking havoc across the country and the possibility of a ‘twindemic’ of both flu and COVID-19, it is more important than ever that pregnant women get their flu shot,” Jennings-Nunez wrote. “The flu shot is safe for the fetus and can be given during any trimester. There is no evidence that the preservatives in the vaccine or the vaccine itself is associated with abnormalities or autism. There is evidence that the flu vaccine saves lives.”
Doctors stress that although some people may experience mild side effects or symptoms from a flu shot, the inoculation is not an infection of the live virus and should not be considered 100% preventive of the illness, either.
“If you do get the flu, what ends up happening is the severity of it is less than if you had not gotten the flu shot,” explained Dr. William Wang, chief medical officer at Glendale Memorial Hospital.
Wang noted the potential harshness of the flu compared with that of a cold.
“Most people who have had the flu know that they had it,” he said. “If someone says they don’t know if they’ve had the flu, they probably haven’t. Your muscles are aching, you are knocked out, dead tired, can’t really get out of bed. It is nothing like a cold.”
Added Sung: “I’ve had it once — it has probably been 14 years since I had it — and I still haven’t forgotten it. Just getting out of the bed to go to the restroom feels like a herculean effort.”
Recalling a large flu outbreak three years ago, Wang added it was vital to ensure that hospitals do not become overwhelmed by having to house two sets of infectious disease patients right now, especially given the unknowns of co-infection.
“The hospitals were filled up with patients with the flu [back then],” he recalled. “They were really sick and sometimes patients would sit in the emergency room for quite a while waiting for a bed.”
In fact, the protection of a flu shot could help people who are getting sick determine whether they should seek advanced medical care, since they will prevent the worst symptoms of the flu.
“The flu can be confused with a COVID-19 infection, so really, if you get the flu shot, it helps you figure out ‘Well, if I’m feeling this bad and I got the flu shot, maybe I should see my HC provider much sooner’ instead of thinking this is something that will just pass,” Wang said. “You’re not burdened with trying to figure out whether this is flu versus COVID.”
Jennings-Nunez also reminded people that prior flu shots do not necessarily protect against newer strains of the illness, which is why they’re encouraged every year. Addressing mothers-to-be, she added that flu shots can be vital for protecting infants as well.
“Getting a flu vaccine helps to keep you and your loved ones healthy,” she said. “Your flu vaccine also helps your newborn because the antibodies your body makes are passed to your fetus, providing valuable protection when they are born during flu season.”
Health-care providers and employers this year have been more thoughtful, Sung observed, in providing shots to members of the community and their employees.
“There are definitely a lot of places for you to get a flu shot this year if you would like one,” she said. “That’s one of the best things people can do, to make it easy for other people to get it. If we can have more employers on board to have someone just do a quick ‘fill out your form and get a flu shot,’ I think we’d get a higher acceptance rate.”