The race is on for an effective Covid-19 vaccine. While the world eagerly awaits positive results, another existing vaccine is being distributed that will be a vital weapon in fighting the pandemic: the flu shot.
Even though influenza vaccines aren't 100 percent effective at preventing flu, they do help ward off infection, lower the risk of severe illness, and relieve stress on the health care system.
As temperatures drop and flu season approaches, knowing when, where, and why to get the flu vaccine could be life-saving.
William Schaffner, the director of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases and professor at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine tells Inverse that it is easy to underestimate influenza.
But the flu puts hundreds of thousands of people into the hospital each year, he says. On average, there are between 12,000 and 80,000 annual flu-related deaths in the United States.
"If Covid-19 is active, we're concerned that the literal health care system, whether it is emergency rooms, clinics, and hospitals, could be really swamped," Schaffner says.
"There could well be a substantial respiratory virus hit — a 'twindemic' — this winter," he says. "It's not only the flu and Covid, but other respiratory viruses."
Getting the flu shot is "something we can do to minimize that hit to the health care system, take some of the stress off, and provide an awful lot of protection to people against influenza," he adds.
What is the flu shot?
Fighting the flu is notoriously challenging. Each year, scientists play a guessing game to target the most likely influenza strains to hit, create a specialized vaccine to protect against those strains, then distribute it internationally as an injection-based vaccine.
The flu shot works about 40 to 60 percent of the time, protecting against three or four different strains of the virus, as multiple versions usually circulate during any one flu season.
Flu vaccines cause the body to produce antibodies about two weeks after vaccination. These antibodies provide protection against infection with the viruses that are used to make the vaccine.
"The flu vaccine shifts the odds in our favor and that's very, very valuable," Schaffner says.
Why do you need a flu shot?
Not only can the flu shot keep you from coming down with influenza, if you do become infected, being vaccinated helps your body wage a more effective battle against the virus.
"If you get the flu vaccine, and nonetheless, let's say a month later you come down with influenza, you're very likely to have a less severe infection, less likely to be hospitalized, less likely to be in an intensive care unit, and less likely to die," Schaffner says. "What's wrong with that?"
A 2018 study showed that from 2012 to 2015, flu vaccination among adults reduced the risk of being admitted to an intensive care unit with flu by 82 percent.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, everyone 6 months of age and older needs a flu vaccine every year. The flu vaccine is especially important for children, pregnant women, elderly populations, and those with chronic conditions like diabetes and heart disease.
In turn, the flu vaccine lessens the burden on health care providers and helps conserve health resources for people, including those with Covid-19, that need them.
Despite these benefits, some people opt out of the flu vaccine every year. After all, it is just the flu, right? Schaffner cautions that this is short-sighted.
"We sing the same song each year — influenza is serious," Schaffner says. "It's such an annual event that familiarity breeds if not contempt, at least indifference."
"It can hit a young healthy person and put them in the intensive care unit in 48 hours," Schaffner says. "And we don't know which young healthy person that will do to whom that will occur."
When should you get a flu shot?
If you are in the northern hemisphere, October is the "golden month" to get vaccinated, Schaffner says. That's because it falls before influenza widely circulates throughout the United States.
"If you get vaccinated during October, it should last you through February and into March," Schaffner says.
If you want to get ahead and get vaccinated now at the end of September, Schaffner says, "Go ahead."
Even if you miss the October window, you should still get vaccinated as the flu season progresses.
Where can you get vaccinated?
Recently, folks trying to get flu shots have reported canceled appointments, delayed vaccination, and vaccine shortages in Poland and the United Kingdom. But these local shortages aren't likely to become widespread, Schaffner says, especially in the United States.
That's because flu vaccine manufacturers have made more flu vaccines this year than ever before, Schaffner explains. The CDC usually purchases 500,000 doses for uninsured adults. This year, the agency ordered an additional 9.3 million doses. Many of these doses will be distributed to local health departments so people without insurance can get vaccinated for free.
"We don't anticipate shortages in any widespread fashion," Schaffner says. "There may be an occasional spot shortage that shows up here or there, and that's just a delivery issue."
Flu shots are widely available in pharmacies like Walgreens or CVS, urgent-care centers, doctor's offices, community health clinics, and through some employer-sponsored programs. You can use the CDC's vaccine finder to find a convenient location to get the shot near you.
If at first you don't succeed, try, try again.
"You might run into something temporary, in one doctor's office or a pharmacy, but go across the street to another pharmacy," Schaffner advises.
How much do flu shots cost?
Typically, health insurance companies cover flu shots without a copay, meaning insured people won't pay a dollar to get vaccinated. This year, the CDC also plans to offer vaccinations to uninsured people through local health departments for free.
In the average US pharmacy, without insurance, flu shots can range from 5 to 70 dollars.
Facing flu season— Although many people worry about Covid-19 exposure from a trip to the doctor's office or pharmacy, Schaffner says the slight risk is far outweighed by the benefit of getting the flu shot. He also recommends wearing a mask and social distancing during the visit.
"Many people have been getting their medical care via telemedicine and you can't immunize through the computer, you have to show up and roll up your sleeves," Schaffner says.
As we stare down a fierce flu season, Schaffner offers two strategies to stay healthy:
"Number one: get vaccinated. Make sure everybody in your family and everybody who you know is vaccinated," Schaffner advises. "Number two: Wear that mask, be attentive to social distancing, do not go to large group events, and spend more time at home."
"Those things will protect you not only against Covid, but also against flu, the common cold, and other respiratory viruses that are going to be circulating this winter. You have an awful lot of control over your exposure."