No matter what else is going on, getting the flu is never fun. But flu season 2020 might require a new level of diligence, because the flu and COVID won't make for happy bedfellows. In fact, doctors are saying that getting your flu shot is going to be more important this year than ever. You may well be asking how soon you can get your flu shot.
"We tend to forget how sick we can get with the flu," says Dr. John Whyte, M.D., chief medical officer of WebMD. "Each year, several hundred thousand people get hospitalized for flu, and tens of thousands of people die from flu — especially the elderly. That's why it is so important every year to get the flu shot." But without a vaccine for COVID-19 available yet, it's even more critical than usual to make sure you don't get the flu this winter, Whyte tells Bustle. "This year, particularly, we don't want two major respiratory viruses overrunning our communities and hospitals and doctors' offices."
"We now run the risk of catching the flu and COVID-19 at the same time, significantly increasing our risks of harm from the viruses, including death," says Dr. Michael Richardson, M.D., a provider at One Medical. "All health care providers are anxious to see what this flu season will bring, which is why we are highly encouraging everyone to get vaccinated this year and help be protected from the flu."
Preventing The Flu During The COVID Pandemic
One big obstacle with managing COVID outbreaks during flu season will be hospital capacity, USA Today reports. Combining expected flu hospitalizations with urgent COVID cases can severely compromise hospitals' ability to cope with patients' needs. Dr. Sanjeev Jain, M.D., a doctor double-board certified in immunology and internal medicine, points out that COVID-19 is also many times deadlier than the flu. "If people don’t vaccinate this year, they are not only putting themselves at greater risk, but are also putting the health care system at risk of being overwhelmed."
Getting a flu shot also improves hospitals' ability to treat you quickly for what you actually have. COVID and the flu share general symptoms like cough and fever, which can make it harder for hospitals to determine which patients have COVID. That means it'll take people longer to get diagnosed and treated. "We want to be able to count accurately what's flu versus what's COVID," Whyte tells Bustle. If someone got their flu shot but has a cough or fever, he says, it's less likely to be influenza. The sooner doctors can determine who has COVID and who has the flu, the sooner the person can receive appropriate medical care.
Influenza and COVID are especially dangerous for the same group of people, too. If someone is over age 65 or has underlying conditions that make people more susceptible to COVID, they are also more likely to get a more severe case of the flu. The CDC says that chronic lung and heart conditions, as well as diabetes, can increase people's risk for serious cases of the flu. These conditions also put folks at greater risk of hospitalization for COVID, so even if you don't have these health issues, protecting yourself and those around you with a flu vaccine is extra important.
When Are Flu Shots Available In 2020?
Technically, you might be able to get a flu shot at your local urgent care as of mid-August, but Whyte suggests waiting a bit. "They are available in some areas of the country now, but we usually don't vaccinate until mid-late September, early October," he says. "The effectiveness of the flu vaccine decreases over time, so you don't want to get vaccinated too early because that could increase your risk in March and April when flu is still around."
Jain suggests getting it as soon as you can. "People should get it as soon as possible, the sooner the better. At the latest, people should get it [by] mid to late October. The flu shot takes two to three weeks to start working so the sooner you get it, the sooner you can be protected."
Richardson agrees that you want to ensure you're protected for flu season's usual peak in December and into spring, so timing it for September to October is a good call. "It's never too late to get vaccinated in case you miss the early window of opportunity."
How To Get A Flu Shot Safely
Of course, you need to leave the house to get your flu shot. But if you're concerned that your trip to the pharmacy or doctor's office will put you at greater risk for contracting COVID-19, Whyte says that the benefits outweigh the risks as long as you maintain social distancing practices. "Pharmacies and doctors' offices are equivalent in terms of safety," he tells Bustle. To minimize your risk of COVID exposure at the doctor's office, he recommends setting up an appointment or going when there isn't a line. "Whatever is going to be easier to get your flu shot, the better." You should also do the usual: wear your mask, keep 6 feet distance, not touch your face, and wash your hands.
If you don't normally get the flu shot for whatever reason, this is a great year to start. "The flu shot is safe and highly recommended for anyone who has a weakened immune system, including the elderly, pregnant women, and anyone who has a condition that makes them immunocompromised," says Richardson, adding that you can't catch the flu from the vaccine. "Vaccines in general can make you feel run down and even have flu-like symptoms for a brief period of time after receiving them, which may explain where the myth of the flu shot giving you the flu came about."
What's more, concerns around coronavirus exposure shouldn't prevent you from getting your flu shot. "There really is no reason not to get the flu vaccine unless you have an underlying condition that would prevent you from getting it," Jain says.
Dr. John Whyte, M.D., chief medical officer, WebMD
Dr. Michael Richardson, M.D., a provider at One Medical
Dr. Sanjeev Jain, M.D., a doctor double-board certified in immunology and internal medicine