Health experts advise getting flu vaccine to avoid ‘twindemic’

By: Sarah Wojcik | Royal Oak Review | Published October 27, 2020

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ROYAL OAK — Doctors at Beaumont Health are advising that people get the flu vaccine now more than ever in order to prevent the possible double whammy of an outbreak of influenza combined with COVID-19.

“There is great concern that these two infections, both respiratory in nature, easily spread and requiring similar treatments, could break out at the same time and that individuals who test positive for one, may be more susceptible to contracting the other,” Dr. Matthew Sims, director of infectious disease research at Beaumont Health, said in a prepared statement.

Sims said that, by itself, the flu can be “extremely taxing” to individuals and health care systems, but combined with a second surge of COVID-19, the risk is much greater.

“There’s also concern one infection will make individuals that much more vulnerable to the other, worsening outcomes,” he said in the statement.

The flu vaccine may provide an extra layer of defense against COVID-19, according to health experts.

“Although it is preliminary and not definitive, there is some data that suggest the flu vaccine provides some protection against COVID-19,” Sims said in a statement. “We aren’t exactly sure why it works. It could have something to do with priming the immune system to respond to COVID-19 and boosting immunity. It’s certainly not going to hurt.”

The flu vaccine contains three or four different strains of flu scientists believe will most likely be circulating this season. Even if not an exact match, the vaccine triggers the body to produce an immune response that limits severity of illness.

Dr. Christopher Carpenter, infectious disease specialist and chair of internal medicine at Beaumont Health, said the flu vaccine is developed each year in response to trends seen in the opposite hemisphere.

“The flu vaccine components change every year,” Carpenter said. “It’s based on what’s going on in the Southern Hemisphere, when they have winter, so the Northern Hemisphere can use the information and vice versa.”

The vaccine currently being administered, he said, was determined in the spring — fall in the Southern Hemisphere, when it began to see cases of the flu.

“A lot of tough things were thrown at us this spring, but we are now that much better prepared to fight and do well in this battle,” Sims said in the statement. “Few people say, ‘My loved one or I got the flu shot and then I was on a ventilator with pneumonia.’ Even when it doesn’t prevent the illness, it often lessens the symptoms and it’s still the best tool we have at containing the damage.”

Last year’s flu season, while relatively mild, still resulted in between 39 and 56 million cases, 740,000 hospitalizations, and between 24,000 and 62,000 deaths, according to preliminary estimates by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

For the 2020-21 flu season, the CDC increased its order of flu vaccines by an additional 9.3 million doses from its usual half-million doses for uninsured adults.

Flu shots are available through primary care doctors, urgent care locations, various drug stores and some grocery stores.

Carpenter said, as far as a vaccine for COVID-19, “There are still a lot of unknowns, but also a lot of promising information coming out.”

“We need a vaccine that is safe and effective. Those are the two most important parts of the entire package here. Preferably, we’ll have multiple vaccines in use with the same level of safety and efficacy,” he said.

He said the earliest estimates for a COVID-19 vaccine to be ready for high-risk individuals and frontline workers are at the end of December through January.

The development of a vaccine within a year of the identification of the pathogens, he added, is “unprecedented” and “remarkable.”

“A lot of very smart people putting their brain power together has carried us forward, with support by governments, not just in this country, but the world, unified in trying to find an effective vaccine,” Carpenter said. “It goes to show, when confronted with something of this magnitude and risk to people across the world, we can figure it out.”