PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Doctors say this year is particularly important to get the flu shot since we are in the midst of a pandemic.
The best time to get the vaccine — which doctors say takes about two weeks to become effective — is between now and mid-October. Doctors note you can still get the flu vaccine at any point during flu season, which can begin as early as October and as late as April.
Dr. Silvia Chiang, an Attending Physician in Pediatric Infectious Diseases at Hasbro Children’s Hospital, says she knows from personal experience the workload can double in the winter due to the flu and other respiratory viruses that become more common in the colder months.
Top reasons to get the flu vaccine this year:
Chiang says the top three reasons to get the flu vaccine this year involve the seriousness of both the flu and COVID-19, lessening the strain on the health care system, and testing.
While there is not a lot of data on what happens to patients with both the flu and COVID-19, Chiang says “we really don’t want to find out.”
“Just having one of these viruses by itself is bad enough,” Chiang said. “Having both of them at once, we don’t want to know what will happen if somebody has both at once, especially if they’re older, especially if they have underlying medical conditions.”
Chiang says getting the flu vaccine not only protects yourself, but it also protects those who are more vulnerable — senior citizens, people with underlying medical conditions, or babies under the age of six months who are not old enough to receive the vaccine.
As hospitals are still under strain due to the ongoing pandemic, Chiang hopes people get the flu vaccine in an effort to lessen the burden on the health care system this fall and winter.
“You can start running out of hospital beds, doctor’s offices may not have open appointments for you. So, it doesn’t matter, even if you don’t have one of these two infections. If you have something else, you still may not get the care you need,” Chiang continued.
She also says since the flu and COVID-19 have a lot of similar symptoms, it’s hard to diagnose either infection just by looking at a patient. Testing would likely be needed to figure out what’s making someone sick.
“If we don’t have sufficient testing because too many people are sick with these similar symptoms, we won’t know who has what, and we won’t be able to properly manage these patients,” Chiang said.
Common misconceptions about the flu and flu vaccine:
Doctors want you to know getting the flu vaccine does not give you the flu, though there are several reasons why you may have thought so in the past.
It takes about two weeks for the flu vaccine to become effective. Doctors say in that’s time there is always the risk of being exposed and getting sick with the flu before you’re fully protected, in addition to getting another type of virus you may mistake for the flu.
“Let’s say they get the flu vaccine, and two days later they get a sniffle, and they attribute the sniffles to the flu vaccine. And that’s a natural thought, because, you know, they got the flu vaccine two days ago, but the flu vaccine does not cause the flu,” Chiang said.
Chiang also notes the flu virus changes every year, as does the vaccine, which is why it’s important to get it every flu season.
“You really don’t want to find out this year, of all years, that you actually aren’t immune to the flu, because actually nobody has a natural immunity to the flu,” Chiang said. “So even if you’ve had the flu before, that does not make you immune to getting the flu again.”
What about people with egg allergies?
Chiang says research now shows the vaccine, which can be manufactured using egg-based technology, is safe for those with egg allergies.
“We’ve had multiple medical studies, both over 4,000, 5,000 patients who have egg allergies, including those with very severe egg allergies that have shown that flu vaccine is safe in people with egg allergies,” Chiang said.
How many doses of the flu vaccine do I need?
Doctors say you only need one dose of the flu vaccine per year, with some exceptions.
“The only exception is babies and young children who have never gotten the flu vaccine before. Those people need two doses of the vaccine the first year they get it,” Chiang said. “But for everybody else, one dose is sufficient.”
Chiang notes if you did not receive the vaccine and get the flu, you can still get the vaccine after getting sick in order to protect yourself from other sub-types of the flu for the rest of the season.
Flu season around the globe:
There is some hope for this year’s flu season, according to a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The report looks at data from Southern Hemisphere countries, where winter (and its flu season) begins in June, indicates little influenza activity.
The report noted in Australia a nationwide effort to vaccinate people against the flu along with protective measures people are taking against coronavirus transmission led to a quieter flu season.
Chiang says this doesn’t mean people should get lax on protecting themselves, but rather they should remain vigilant in making sure flu season and COVID-19 are controlled — otherwise we will have a very tough winter.
“The reason I’m telling you this is to let people know that we can do something,” Chiang continued. “Sometimes, people feel very powerless in this epidemic. But we can do something to help. We can get vaccinated against the flu. We can continue to social distance, we can continue to practice very, very good hygiene. And with all those things put together, based on the experience from the Southern Hemisphere, we can get through this.”