There is a safe, effective, widely available vaccine that can help fight the pandemic.

No, it’s not the COVID-19 vaccine, whose development looks promising but is still some number of months away. It’s the flu shot, which is given to tens of millions of Americans every year but perhaps has never been more important.

In North America, the flu season starts in October and peaks between December and February.

This year, it’ll come during a time when everyone is worried about the expected fall surge of COVID-19. At schools, everyone will be on the lookout for coronavirus symptoms, which in many ways overlap with those caused by the flu. Hospitals and other health care providers may be stretched thin.

Unlike years before, people who come down with the flu will have the coronavirus to worry about. In previous years, they may have hunkered down and rode out the flu.

But this year, they’ll be more likely to seek care, flooding hospitals and urgent care clinics, and mingling with other flu patients as well as those getting treatment for COVID. It’ll put extra strain on the health care system, and raise the chance of further spread.

Wide use of the flu shot, however, could make for a very welcome mild season, reducing the burden on hospitals and making life easier for many, including school officials who will have to act as if every cough and fever, even if caused by the flu, is coming from the more infectious, more deadly novel coronavirus.

That’s not to say the flu itself shouldn’t be taken seriously. Last year, in a particularly bad season, it caused at least 18 million health provider visits, 410,000 hospitalizations, and as many as 64,000 deaths, including 42 in Maine.

The flu vaccine is designed at the end of the previous flu season using the four most prevalent strains. Although the flu changes more than other viruses, making it difficult to match the vaccine to the season’s particular strain, it still works. Last year’s vaccine was about 40% effective, and even when it doesn’t stop the virus it can make it less severe, cutting down on the harshness of symptoms and the chance someone may have to be hospitalized.

Serious side effects from the flu vaccine are very rare, and it is impossible for the inactivated or weakened virus in a flu shot to give someone the flu. Everyone over the age of 6 months, with very few exceptions, should get a flu shot.

Still, every year more than half of the people in this country don’t. This year, with people making fewer trips to the pharmacy and supermarket, and fewer people going into the office, where flu shot clinics are often held, there is a danger that number could go up.

That would be bad news for everyone who doesn’t get a flu shot, and for everyone who holding out hope for a weak flu season, including health care providers and school officials now fully focused on the coronavirus.

There are likely to be new options for people seeking flu shots, including off-site clinics, perhaps even drive-throughs. Check with your health care provider, pharmacy, supermarket or local public health agency, or go to vaccinefinder.org.

Get your flu shot early in the season, and help make the winter better for everyone.

 

 


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