Wearing a mask and social-distancing should help you this flu season, but you still need a flu shot, local health experts say. (Photo: ~User7565abab_575, Getty Images/iStockphoto)
A lot of the things people are doing to protect themselves from COVID-19 — wearing masks, social-distancing and hand-washing — could reduce the number of influenza cases in 2020-21.
But because the upcoming flu season will coincide with the coronavirus pandemic, it’s never been more vital to get a flu shot, local health experts say.
Generally, the flu season in the southern hemisphere, which runs from April to September and is seen as a predictor of what will happen in northern countries, has been “quite mild” this year, Dr. Michael Apostolakos, chief medical officer at Strong Memorial and Highland hospitals, said last week during a press conference at the Monroe County Health Department.
But there are no guarantees, and we’re still in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, so “that’s why it’s important that we all get our flu vaccine,” he said.
Dr. Michael Mendoza, Monroe County’s public health commissioner, said, “Every flu season, our health care systems are strained.”
The county saw 5,775 confirmed cases of flu during the 2019-20 season, 763 of which required hospitalization, according to Rochester Regional Health. The county’s overall COVID-19 infection rate is low, Mendoza said. As of Sept. 27, there were 274 active confirmed cases and 5,669 confirmed cases overall. Right now, 23 people are hospitalized, seven in intensive care units.
But, “Imagine what it might be like if we have a second surge of COVID-19 here in our community” during flu season, he said.
Said Apostolakos, “The symptoms of flu and COVID are very similar, and it’s going to be hard to tell the the difference, and the less disease we have, the easier it will be to care for patients in the community as a whole.”
It is possible, by the way, to get the flu and COVID-19 simultaneously, and “Having one would probably worsen the course of the other or both,” Dr. Emil P. Lesho, an epidemiologist and infectious diseases consultant for Rochester Regional Health, said in a separate interview.
Flu season here typically starts in November and runs through April. It usually peaks in January and February, but that’s not certain either, Mendoza said.
“It’s always a guessing game as to when that peak will happen,” he said. “Every year is different, and this year, if any year was going to be different, it would be this year.”
Regardless, there is no evidence that the effectiveness of the flu shot wears off at the end of flu season, and because it takes 10 to 14 days for the vaccine to achieve its full effect, “I’m recommending to my patients is get it now,” he said.
Unlike in the past, UR Medicine and Rochester Regional Health are not hosting flu-shot clinics this year because they don’t want to encourage large gatherings.
“We’re going to be relying on our pharmacies,” Mendoza said. “We’re going to be relying on our health care providers, primary care offices who provide the vast majority of flu shots in our community in any given year. We know that they’re prepared, and thankfully we have no signs of any shortages yet of the main flu vaccine.”
People can go to fluvaccine.urmc.edu to find the nearest retailer offering flu shots. It is recommended that anyone at least 6 months old get one. The vaccine is especially important for people at high risk of complications, including children younger than 2, pregnant women and adults older than 65.
Asked what he would tell those resistant to being inoculated, Apostolakos said: “Unless you’re one of the rare patients that’s had a very significant reaction to the flu vaccine … that you think about not only protecting yourself but protecting your loved ones and the people you … come in contact with.”
“It is crucial every year but even more so now,” Lesho said. “If you were in doubt before, don’t be.”
Reporter Marcia Greenwood covers general assignments. Send story tips to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @MarciaGreenwood.
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