Each year, approximately half of American adults choose to skip the annual flu vaccine and take their chances with the seasonal flu. While most healthy adults recover from the flu after an unpleasant week of cough, fever and other flu symptoms, approximately 200,000 Americans are hospitalized for flu complications each year and a fraction of those patients die of more severe complications. While the CDC always recommends a flu vaccine for all Americans over the age of six months, the flu shot is even more important during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Many scientists fear that as temperatures drop and people return to indoor gatherings, the incidence of COVID-19 transmission will increase and cause a winter wave of COVID-19, potentially worse than some of the other waves we have seen. As we near Thanksgiving, we are already seeing a huge increase in the number of new COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, ICU admissions, and deaths from multi-system organ failure. A winter wave of COVID-19 would coincide with flu season, increasing the burden on hospitals as both flu patients and COVID-19 patients seek medical attention for severe cases. If more Americans are vaccinated against the flu, which can help to prevent and reduce the severity of the seasonal flu, more hospital beds and medical providers will be available to care for COVID-19 patients. The public health goal is clear: prevent the flu to create space to treat COVID-19.
Another issue with a simultaneous flu and COVID-19 wave is the number of symptoms that the two diseases share. Flu symptoms include fever, chills, muscle aches, cough, congestion, runny nose, headaches, and fatigue. The only symptom that COVID-19 does not share with the flu is a loss of taste and smell. This overlap makes it nearly impossible for doctors to diagnose the flu or COVID-19 without conducting a specific viral test. This could put increased strain on testing resources and cause greater testing lab backlogs or a shortage of tests.
Getting a flu shot this fall is a low-risk choice that may help to save your life or the lives of those around you. Aside from masks and social distancing, the flu shot is one of the best tools at our collective disposal this fall to prevent a looming public health disaster this winter.