It’s that time of year, when we are reminded to get our annual flu vaccine. But this year is different. Now more than ever it is important to get a flu vaccine, not only to protect ourselves and our close contacts but also to help our community address the coronavirus pandemic.
The symptoms for COVID-19 and flu are very similar, so a major challenge we will face in the coming months is diagnosing people correctly and quickly. By increasing flu vaccination rates in our community, we will reduce flu disease and reduce the toll on COVID-19 testing centers, meaning faster turnaround times, more efficient contact tracing, and faster control of coronavirus outbreaks.
Reducing flu disease in our community will also reduce the burden on our entire medical system, including doctors offices, clinics, urgent care centers, and emergency departments. It is especially important to reduce the number of individuals with flu needing hospitalization, ICU care, and ventilators, all of which are limited resources needed to help those with severe COVID-19.
When should we get our flu vaccine? Today. Flu season starts in California in late October. It takes approximately two weeks for the vaccine to induce a strong immune response, so now is the time to get your vaccine. Children, pregnant women, people with chronic conditions, and older adults are at higher risk for severe flu disease, and numerous studies have shown that flu vaccines reduce this risk (www.cdc.gov/flu/).
Can you get COVID-19 and flu at the same time? Yes, research shows that it is possible to get sick with the flu and COVID-19 at once, making it harder for the immune system to fend them off. A co-infection would mean higher risk for severe lung damage, longer illness, and severe complications.
Had the flu last year and think you’re immune? There are four strains of seasonal influenza virus, the cause of the flu, so immunity to one does not mean immunity to the others.
Had the flu vaccine last year and think you’re immune? Influenza virus is always mutating, and each year vaccine makers adapt the vaccine to the latest virus strains. In fact, three of the four strains have been updated in this year’s flu vaccine formulation. Immunity from past vaccines does not necessarily protect against currently circulating virus strains.
Think the flu vaccine doesn’t work very well? While it’s true that the flu vaccine is never 100% effective, several studies have shown that even if you get the flu after being vaccinated, you’re more likely to have a less severe case and recover quicker.
Did you know that there are several different options for flu vaccines? Flu vaccines are recommended for everyone 6 months and older, but some people may benefit from specific types of flu vaccines:
• People 65 years and older can get a high-dose vaccine or an adjuvanted vaccine, both of which are intended to give older people a better immune response.
• People with a fear of needles 2-49 years old can get a needle-free nasal spray vaccine.
• People with egg allergies can get a flu vaccine that was not produced in eggs.
Where can you get a flu vaccine?
• Your doctor’s office.
• Some supermarkets.
• Santa Cruz County flu vaccine clinics (www.santacruzhealth.com).
• UCSC students can go to the Student Health Center or most of the above places (healthcenter.ucsc.edu/services/immunizations.html)
Under the Affordable Care Act (ACA/ObamaCare) all health insurances must cover preventive care such as flu vaccinations with no fee or co-pay.
County clinics offer a sliding scale payment option and will not turn away those in need of a vaccine. (www.santacruzhealth.com).
Santa Cruz Health Center, 1080 Emeline Ave., Santa Cruz. Phone: 831-454-4100. Call ahead for hours and an appointment.
Individuals with no health insurance may be eligible to receive free or reduced cost vaccines at a Santa Cruz County vaccine clinic (www.santacruzhealth.com).
Rebecca DuBois is Associate Professor of Biomolecular Engineering, at UC Santa Cruz.