In a normal year, around this time I begin preparing for influenza season by recommending vaccination. In a normal year, I reflect on the decades-long proven safety of the flu vaccine. In a normal year, I point out that the single most effective way to prevent influenza is not only individual flu vaccination but also widespread, universal flu vaccination sufficient to create herd immunity and protect our highest risk community members.
This is not a normal year.
The 2020 influenza season, which typically runs from fall through spring will certainly coincide with the COVID-19 pandemic. This has the potential to complicate many aspects of COVID-related care.
Each year in the U.S., we experience a seasonal influenza epidemic that infects tens of millions of Americans, hospitalizes hundreds of thousands and results in the deaths of tens of thousands. The symptoms of flu range from mild to severe and can include fever, muscle aches, congestion, cough, sore throat, tiredness and shortness of breath. Flu can lead to life-threatening pneumonia.
Does this all sound familiar?
From the standpoint of symptoms (what doctors call the clinical presentation), influenza is virtually indistinguishable from COVID-19.
For many years, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended universal flu vaccination each year for people 6 months and older. That’s right, every American should get a flu vaccine every year. Flu vaccine is extraordinarily safe. Most people get the injectable inactivated flu vaccine, from which it is impossible to become infected.
The effectiveness of flu vaccine varies from year to year. Many vaccinated people are completely protected from the vaccine flu strains. Equally important is the fact that people who get vaccinated who do later get the flu tend to have milder symptoms.
People at greatest risk of flu complications are young children, pregnant women, elders and those with chronic health conditions including asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, heart disease, diabetes, an impaired immune system and the like.
Beyond vaccination, measures like cough etiquette, hand washing, avoiding touching the face and physical distancing reduce the risk of flu spread. While there are antiviral treatments for flu, they are less effective in reducing flu complications than vaccination.
To date, there is no safe or effective vaccine yet available for COVID-19. Treatment options are sparse. While considerable effort is underway to create and eventually distribute safe and effective treatments and vaccines, we are heading into the fall and winter months with a limited COVID-19 toolbox.
Meanwhile, a safe and effective flu vaccine exists in adequate supply and will soon be available to every American who wants one. Over the next few months, a robust flu vaccination effort is one of the single best public health strategies to mitigate the dangers of the COVID-19 pandemic. Medical, nursing, pharmacy and public health staff members are ready, willing and able to undertake this effort.
Now we need the American public to step forward, roll up a sleeve and get a flu vaccine!
Dr. Matthew A. Clark is a board-certified physician in internal medicine and pediatrics practicing at the Ute Mountain Ute Health Center in Towaoc.