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Why Flu Vaccine is More Important During COVID-19

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Although we can’t predict exactly what will happen this fall and winter, flu will likely arrive while COVID-19 is still circulating, and that makes it even more important to get a flu vaccination. We asked Dr. Jeff Duchin, Health Officer for Public Health—Seattle & King County, to explain why.

Why is it particularly important to get a flu vaccine this season?

Jeff Duchin: The prospect of our annual flu outbreak compounding COVID-19 during this fall and winter’s “respiratory virus” season is worrisome. Hospitals, clinics, and doctors’ offices are likely to be busy caring for COVID-19 patients and other health needs. Getting a flu vaccine will help keep you and your loved ones out of those medical settings. Flu vaccine has been shown to reduce the risk of getting the flu by about half, and importantly also reduces the risk for severe illness and hospitalization for those who do get the flu. That will both reduce your risk for becoming ill and for needing medical attention. It also helps ensure hospitals and medical resources are available for COVID-19 patients and others who need them.

When the rest of us get vaccinated for the flu, it also helps protect our household members and others in the community – especially older adults, young children, pregnant women, people with chronic medical conditions or weakened immune systems, and others at high risk for severe influenza.

The flu and COVID-19 share many of the same symptoms, such as fever, cough, shortness of breath, sore throat, muscle aches, and fatigue. How can you tell if you have flu or COVID-19?

JD: That’s one of the main concerns for this flu season – confusion with COVID-19. With so many shared symptoms, it will be complicated to distinguish between the two and will require testing. Anyone with these symptoms will likely need to take isolation precautions for COVID-19 that include staying away from others for at least 10 days and their close contacts may need to be quarantined.

That’s why it’s in everyone’s best interest to get vaccinated and prevent influenza illnesses that might be confused with COVID-19 and avoid preventable visits to a healthcare provider or hospital.

Will the flu vaccine prevent COVID-19?

No, the flu vaccine protects against the four types of influenza viruses that may circulate each season. Vaccines for COVID-19 are currently undergoing large scale safety and effectiveness testing and have not been evaluated or approved for use outside of these studies. But we do have a vaccine for flu that has been safely given to millions of Americans for more than 50 years. And it works.

How can you safely get a flu vaccine if COVID-19 is still spreading in King County?

You can safely get a flu shot from a doctor’s office, community health center, or pharmacy. They are taking extra steps to protect clients from COVID-19.  Any vaccination location following CDC’s pandemic guidance should be a safe place for you to get a flu vaccine.

You can use VaccineFinder.org to find where flu vaccines are available near you. We recommend that you call ahead to make sure they have it in stock. When going to get a flu vaccine, be sure to protect yourself and others by staying at least six feet apart at all times, wearing a mask, and washing your hands thoroughly afterwards.

How else could this flu season look different during the COVID-19 pandemic? 

Even in a typical year it’s not possible to predict when the flu season will start or how severe it will be. If enough of us follow the recommended COVID-19 prevention measures, it’s possible that the upcoming flu season could be less severe than usual. But we can’t bank on that and it would be foolish not to protect ourselves.

We also don’t know what the combination of COVID-19 and influenza will mean for people who get infected at the same time or close together, but there is concern that the combination could lead to serious illnesses.

For these reasons I am urging everyone six months and older to get a flu vaccine, especially those at increased risk for severe influenza and all healthcare and essential workers who have more contact with people.

It’s also crucial to commit to the actions that prevent the spread of COVID-19 (and the flu): decrease activities outside the home, wear face coverings whenever in public, wash your hands frequently, and stay at least six feet away from people who don’t live with you. Improving ventilation in indoor spaces is also important. If everyone takes these measures to reduce COVID-19, it’s also possible that there will be less flu activity than usual.

Are any flu vaccination clinics planned for the public this year?

Yes, a number of flu vaccination events are underway this fall.

Here are some that are already scheduled (please note that most of these are by appointment). The below information is subject to change. Before attending a clinic, please confirm the most up-to-date information on our Find a Vaccination Clinic webpage.

ShoWare Center in Kent
Wednesday 10/7, 12–5 p.m. & Saturday, 10/10, 10–4 p.m.
Drive-thru childhood vaccines and flu clinics. Hosted by Public Health and Seattle Visiting Nurse Association. Walk-ups welcome. Offering all vaccines required for K-12 school at no cost, no insurance needed. Also offering flu vaccine for all adults and children age 4+. Bring your family’s vaccination records, wear short sleeves, and make sure everyone over age 2 wears a face covering. Registration required for adult flu vaccine: schedule.seattlevna.com. For accommodations or accessibility information, e-mail ggustavson@kingcounty.gov. For more info, visit kingcounty.gov/findaclinic

ICHS clinics: International District, Holly Park, Bellevue, and Shoreline
By appointment. Select Saturdays in October.
Multiple flu clinics for adults and children at four ICHS locations. These are prioritized for ICHS patients but open to everyone. Find date, time, location, and registration information on Public Health’s “Find an Immunization Clinic” page.

Various King County locations
By appointment
Drive-thru clinics hosted by Seattle Visiting Nurse Association. Multiple locations in King County. Serving adults and children ages 4+. All insurances accepted. Learn more and register online. Please note: New clinic locations and dates will be added throughout October.


Originally published in Public Health Insider on September 14, 2020.

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