If you look back on health news headlines from this time last year, two things might stand out: COVID-19 cases were surging and flu cases — remarkably — were not. While things have improved when it comes to COVID-19 now that more people are vaccinated and boosted, the same may not be true about the flu in the coming months. This is especially true as COVID prevention measures, such as masking and social distancing, increasingly become a thing of the past.
According to Leslie Thompson, director of Sharp HealthCare Employee Occupational Health, there is concern that with the combination of low flu vaccination and low flu illness rates over the last two years, the U.S. population has overall decreased immunity to flu heading in to the 2022-2023 flu season.
“We often look to the Southern Hemisphere as a predictor of what to expect in the Northern Hemisphere and are noting that Australia has seen a rise in cases higher than their previous five-year average and the flu season hit earlier than usual there,” Thompson says. “Combine Southern Hemisphere data with declining U.S. flu vaccination rates, our return to pre-pandemic activities and lack of precautions, such as masking and distancing, and we are likely heading into a challenging season of increased illness.”
Due to early warning signs for a severe flu season and recognition the COVID-19 pandemic is not yet over, getting vaccinated for both the flu and COVID-19 is equally important, Thompson says. “For more than two years, COVID has been a significant drain on our health care resources and staffing. Adding an additional widespread respiratory illness such as flu would further impact our already strained health care system.”
The best protection is vaccination
The best way to prevent flu infection and avoid complications of what many are calling a potential COVID-19 and flu “twindemic” is to remain up to date on both COVID-19 and flu vaccinations. While the 2021-2022 flu vaccine proved to be a poor match to one of the circulating strains, the 2022-2023 vaccine has changed to include two new strains, increasing the likelihood of matching the circulating strains going into this coming flu season. If you are exposed to a strain in the vaccine you receive, the infection will be less severe or even negligible.
In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports the flu vaccine may reduce the risk of having to go to the doctor with the flu by 40% to 60%. Flu vaccination among adults was also associated with a 26% lower risk of intensive care unit admission and a 31% lower risk of death from flu, compared to people who were unvaccinated.
All people age 6 months and older are encouraged to receive a flu vaccine every year. According to the CDC, the flu vaccine is especially important for people at higher risk of having serious complications from the virus, including:
- People with chronic health conditions, such as asthma, diabetes and lung disease
- Pregnant people
- People age 65 and older
- People who live in nursing homes or other long-term care facilities
Know when to get vaccinated
According to Thompson, early analysis of this year’s flu season shows cases are three times what they were last year at this same time — and the season has barely begun. The time to get the flu vaccine is now, she says. You can even receive a flu vaccine and COVID-19 vaccine or booster at the same time, though experts recommend receiving the shots in different arms.
“Data shows September and October are the ‘sweet spot’ for getting vaccinated,” she says. “Getting vaccinated too early — for example, in July or August — can lead to waning immunity and inadequate protection for some if we have a late flu season. And getting it later is risky if we have an early season.”
Talk to your doctor if you have questions about the flu vaccine or are feeling unwell. If you have a moderate to severe illness with or without a fever, the CDC recommends waiting until you recover to receive the flu vaccine. However, you may be able to be vaccinated if your illness is mild and without a fever.