“These two illnesses look alike, and the one we can do something about is the flu,” says Dr. William Schaffner

By Julie Mazziotta
September 28, 2020 02:28 PM
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Getting the annual flu vaccine is a simple, life-saving task Americans can check off their list each year, but it’s particularly vital in 2020 as the country continues to grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Now more than ever, health experts are urging everyone in the U.S. to get vaccinated against the flu this fall to prevent a “twindemic” — outbreaks of both COVID-19 and influenza — as the weather cools down.

“We need as many people vaccinated against flu this fall as absolutely possible,” Dr. William Schaffner, professor of preventive medicine and infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University, tells PEOPLE. “It’s not only important to protect you, but to take some of the strain off the healthcare system, which is going to be hit by both COVID and flu.”

And not only will the two illnesses spread at the same time, they both present with similar symptoms, making them hard to differentiate.

“If you develop respiratory symptoms like those associated with influenza and other viruses, how will we know you don’t have COVID-19? The only thing we’ll know to do is to test you. But then you’re a person under evaluation. You can’t go into work. You have to isolate yourself,” Dr. Rick Malley, a senior physician in pediatrics at Boston Children’s Hospital and professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, tells PEOPLE. “Preventing symptoms that could be confused for COVID-19 is very important. One way to do that, is to get a flu shot.”

Adds Schaffner: “These two illnesses look alike, and the one we can do something about is flu. The best thing we can do about flu is the flu vaccine.”

When to Go

Malley recommends that Americans start to get their flu shots now, as we head into October.

“We want to encourage people to get it early, because we have a lot of people to vaccinate,” he says. “We have to tell people to get vaccinated early in the fall because we don’t want everybody trying to get it around Christmas vacation — that would overwhelm the system.”

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While people may be worried about going to a doctor’s office for a flu shot during the pandemic, both experts emphasize that healthcare providers have taken precautions to make the process as safe as possible. Still, there are things you can do to create further peace of mind.

“Call your healthcare provider to see if they’re having a flu clinic early in the morning, or late at night, so you can be in and out,” Schaffner says. “And even if you get vaccinated at the pharmacy, go in the off hours when there are fewer people. Go in and roll up your sleeves and say, ‘Give me a flu shot.’ You can be out of there in 6 minutes. And always wear your mask.”

And Schaffner emphasizes that the benefits outweigh any risk.

“It is worth momentary exposure to the healthcare environment to get your flu shot.”

Debunking Myths

While some people don’t bother with the flu vaccine because of concerns that it will get them sick, that’s not true, say experts. The vaccine delivers an inactive dose of the influenza virus, which prompts the immune system to create antibodies to fight off the potentially deadly viral infection.

“Because the virus is inactive, it absolutely cannot transmit the infection,” Dr. Denise Pate, Internal Medicine Doctor at Medical Offices of Manhattan, previously told PEOPLE.

Another common argument against the flu vaccine is that it’s does not completely prevent the flu — the yearly vaccine is typically 40 to 60 percent effective, according to the Centers for Disease Control. But Schaffner points out that any kind of prevention can be life-saving, both for yourself and others.

“Most people don’t realize that if they get the flu vaccine and still get the flu, they will have a substantially less severe infection,” he says. “They’re less likely to be hospitalized, they're less likely to go to the ICU, and they’re less likely to die.”

“It provides full or partial protection,” he continues. “And it will also prevent you from being a dreaded spreader. You won’t spread flu virus to your relatives, friends and neighbors.”

Hope for a More Mild Season

There is also hope that the flu won’t hit the U.S. as hard this year as in previous years. In Southern Hemisphere countries like Australia, when the flu hit during their colder months (our summer), they experienced a reduced season.

“It’s probably because people are being careful about COVID-19, so a collateral benefit of that is we might actually see reduction in influenza,” Malley says, though it depends on if Americans take precautions.

“If people are good about wearing masks, and washing their hands, and being physically distanced from others, we might expect a less severe flu season.”

Schaffner says the same: “Wear a mask when you leave the house. Practice social distancing. Stay six feet away from other people. Do not go to group events. We’re going to have to continue that for months. It’s the new normal. Do not strain yourself looking for reasons not to do these things. Do them. They will prevent both COVID and flu.”

  • With reporting by WENDY GROSSMAN KANTOR