Dr. Charles Bregier in a white lab coat.
Dr. Charles Bregier

It’s more important than ever to keep people out of hospitals as health care workers continue to care for people with COVID-19. It’s estimated that 60,000 hospitalizations each year could be avoided if more people got the flu vaccine, according to Dr. Charles Bregier, Novant Health medical director of corporate health.

The vaccine is quite effective once the body builds up an antibody response, which takes about two weeks. Most years, Bregier said it reduces the risk of getting the flu by about 40 to 60 percent. While it’s recommended that everyone get an annual flu vaccine, there are several groups of people who are at greater risk of experiencing potentially severe complications if they get the flu.

1. Pregnant women

Bregier said pregnant women are at “significantly higher risk” to have a more severe illness if they get the flu. He advises they get the flu vaccine regardless of where they are at in their pregnancy – the first month or ninth.

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2. People with chronic conditions

Many people can suffer a more severe reaction to the flu. That includes people with diabetes, asthma, heart disease, lung disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), a history of stroke or heart attacks, and congestive heart failure or other chronic health problems.

“Your heart has limits in the amount of blood it can effectively pump,” Bregier said. “All of these conditions make it more difficult to be active and get the proper ventilation in and out of your lungs as you're breathing. Additionally, one of the major complications of flu is pneumonia. People with heart disease, strokes, lung disease and especially Type 1 diabetics are much more likely to develop pneumonia. The biggest killers in people who get the flu are complications like pneumonia.”

Many of these conditions also increase the risk for severe outcomes from COVID-19.

3. Children under 5 years old

Bregier recommends an annual flu vaccine for children ages six months and older. Not only will it reduce the risk of flu illness and hospitalization for the child, it helps prevent spreading the flu to siblings or babies who are too young to receive the vaccine.

4. Older adults

Anyone who is 65 or older is also at higher risk of having flu complications “just by virtue of their age,” Bregier said, and by the fact that their immune system may not be able to fight off the flu as well as a younger individual.

5. People who take medications that suppress the immune system

Immunosuppressant drugs reduce the strength of the body’s immune system and thus, its ability to fight off the flu. Consult with a physician about any medications you may be taking that could fall into this category.

6. People from communities in need

Bregier said studies show that people who lack access to health care or good nutrition may also be at a disadvantage to fight infection.

The bottom line: With the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, it is not the year to take chances with the flu.

“There will be some people, who because of perhaps just being unlucky or at the wrong place at the wrong time, will contract the flu, and a short time later, contract COVID or the other way around,” Bregier said. “It could have a much higher morbidity and mortality rate if someone were to get COVID and the flu simultaneously or back to back.”

Bregier encouraged everyone to get the flu shot this year as part of a community effort to protect those who are at higher risk, but also to wear a mask and continue to socially distance.