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.
Most people who get flu will recover in a few days to less than two weeks, but some people will develop complications (such as pneumonia) as a result of flu, some of which can be life-threatening. There are several groups of people who are at greater risk of experiencing potentially severe complications if they get the flu, Bregier said.
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.
Mothers also pass the antibodies onto their developing baby during pregnancy, which then helps to protect the baby for several months after birth. There is also evidence the COVID-19 vaccines can induce COVID immunity and protect infants who are (currently) too young to receive it.
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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, with rare exceptions. 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.
A third dose of the COVID-19 is also recommended for people who are moderately or severely immunocompromised. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Food and Drug Administration (FDA) acted on this after data indicated those groups' immunity could wane over time. Click here to learn more about who is eligible for a third dose.
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 pandemic, don't 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 also encouraged people to continue to wear a mask and practice good hand hygiene.