The flu vaccine might seem insignificant with the COVID-19 pandemic raging on, but it’s actually more important now then ever.
Does the flu vaccine offer protection against COVID?
No. Vaccines are very specific. Flu vaccines are made to trigger an antibody response in the body to particular surface proteins on the influenza virus capsule. The coronavirus is a different kind of virus, and doesn’t have the same surface targets as what the flu vaccine triggers antibody production for.
For the same reason, the influenza vaccine doesn’t protect against the common cold (which can actually be from a number of different viruses, including a different form of coronavirus).
Will getting the flu vaccine make you more susceptible to COVID?
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that the flu vaccine doesn’t increase the risk of getting COVID.
In more general terms, though, vaccines don’t weaken the immune system. Mounting an immune response to a vaccine is like taking your immune system for a short walk, as opposed to the ultra-long distance marathon it might have to run if you come down with a severe infection.
Why is vaccination recommended?
The symptoms of COVID and the flu are very similar. If you get sick with the flu, you’ll be a suspected COVID case and will need to go through your local public health authority’s process, which will probably involve self-isolation. That’s an unnecessary hassle and load on the health care system if it’s an influenza infection that could potentially have been prevented by the vaccine.
It’s also a matter of protecting the more vulnerable people in our communities. The high vulnerability groups are similar for influenza and COVID. The more people who get vaccinated against influenza, the more protected vulnerable people are from an infection risk they really don’t need coming on top of COVID.
The influenza vaccine doesn’t give anywhere near 100% protection. The influenza virus is highly changeable, and there are typically multiple strains active in any given year. But given the risk that COVID poses, any reduction in influenza risk is valuable for the population as a whole.
The CDC recommends: “During the COVID-19 pandemic, reducing the overall burden of respiratory illnesses is important to protect vulnerable populations at risk for severe illness, the healthcare system, and other critical infrastructure.”
The CDC also states that:
The 2020–21 influenza season will coincide with the continued or recurrent circulation of SARS-CoV-2 (the novel coronavirus associated with coronavirus disease 2019 [COVID-19]). Influenza vaccination of persons aged ≥6 months to reduce prevalence of illness caused by influenza will reduce symptoms that might be confused with those of COVID-19. Prevention of and reduction in the severity of influenza illness and reduction of outpatient illnesses, hospitalizations, and intensive care unit admissions through influenza vaccination also could alleviate stress on the U.S. health care system.
Getting the vaccine
The CDC recommends getting vaccinated by the end of October. Certain populations may have specific needs around vaccines; for example, people who are immunocompromised shouldn’t receive live versions of the vaccine.
It’s going to be a major public health undertaking to try to immunize lots of people while at the same time maintaining proper social distancing. I would like to hope all goes smoothly, but that remains to be seen.
The CDC has more information on Who Needs a Flu Vaccine and When.
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