Maine’s hospitals are stretched thin from the toll of COVID-19 – a serious illness and cause of death that is largely vaccine-preventable. Keeping their eyes up and their hearts in the game, our health care providers are pleading, “Help us! Please get vaccinated!” And they know something that you might not yet: Another vaccine-preventable virus is on the rise now – influenza, or flu.

Of special concern is a recent Harris poll that found that 26 percent of Americans mistakenly think the COVID vaccine will protect them against flu as well. (Spoiler alert: It will not.) Another survey, conducted by the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases, found 44 percent responded they were either unsure about getting or were not planning to get a flu vaccine this season. Let me explain why we all should be concerned.

Maine, as elsewhere in the country, is now seeing our annual uptick in flu cases. Last year’s flu season was mild for several reasons, including the public health measures of masking and distancing. In pre-COVID times, flu was a pandemic unto itself (e.g., H1N1) and even today causes outbreaks in schools, nursing homes and businesses. Already this flu season, we’ve seen outbreaks on college campuses and cases sidelining members of an NFL team.

Adding insult to injury, we are now seeing co-infections of Influenza and COVID at the same time. Calling it “FLOVID” or “flurona” is cutesy, yet experiencing either of these diseases, even alone, doesn’t feel so cute. Both viruses attack the respiratory system and, like COVID vaccines, flu vaccines can and do prevent hospitalizations and deaths. The overall burden of influenza for the 2018-2019 season was an estimated 29 million flu illnesses, 13 million flu-related medical visits, 380,000 flu-related hospitalizations and 28,000 flu deaths.

We may be numb to numbers, yet each person who dies of a preventable disease is a tragedy that breaks the hearts of families and health care providers. The three children in the U.S. who already succumbed to flu this year were no doubt adored by their families and painfully remind me of the terrible loss I have felt when my patients die from preventable diseases.

It would be wise to use our hard-earned pandemic savvy to stop dual outbreaks of COVID and influenza alongside their illness and disruptions. But throughout the pandemic, vaccination rates have dropped substantially across all vaccines. Overall, the number of flu vaccines being administered in pharmacies is down significantly compared to this time last year. And among children, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is reporting lower flu vaccination rates this season. And, according to the latest data, for minorities the gap is even larger. Now, as we face down what looks to be a normal active flu season, I find myself weary and wary of what’s to come.


Heading into peak flu season – January through March – there’s still time to get your vaccine to protect yourself, your loved ones and the health care facilities that serve you.

The CDC recommends an annual flu shot for everyone over the age of 6 months as well as for pregnant women. And the flu vaccine can safely be given simultaneously with the COVID-19 vaccines.

It’s an uncertain time; knowing what to trust and what decisions to make can be paralyzing. Why not put to rest the worry that you might end up in the emergency room with flu (and maybe COVID too) and just get vaccinated today? Ask your nurse or doctor what they advise.


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