Dr. Anthony Fauci gets a flu shot
Dr. Anthony Fauci gets a flu shot in 2018. Courtesy NIH

If you look back on health news headlines from the winter of 2020, two things might stand out: COVID-19 cases were surging, and flu cases were — remarkably — not. Unfortunately, as we head into the new year, both illnesses are causing concern, with flu cases fast outpacing last season’s numbers.

According to the San Diego County Health and Human Services Agency, 1,185 influenza — or flu — cases were reported in the county at the end of last month. At the same time in 2020, only 224 flu cases had been reported. What’s more, the agency reports flu vaccinations have been lagging so far, which could lead to more people getting sick.

COVID has been a significant drain on our health care resources and staffing. Combine the increasing number of flu cases with COVID-19 cases in the region, and we might be heading into a very challenging season of increased illness and overtaxed hospitals, which is why getting vaccinated for both flu and COVID-19 now is especially important.

Why You Don’t Want a Dual Infection

While the flu and COVID-19 are caused by different viruses, there are several similarities between the two. They both affect the respiratory system, are contagious, and can cause mild to severe illness.

Having both infections at the same time — popularly known as having “flurona” — or close together makes it more difficult for your system to effectively respond and could lead to serious illness. What’s more, the two illnesses share common symptoms — fever, dry cough, body aches, chills and fatigue — which might mean you experience more severe symptoms with a dual infection.

The Best Protection Is Vaccination

The best way to prevent flu infection and avoid complications of what many are calling a COVID-19 and flu “twindemic” is to receive both a COVID-19 vaccine and flu shot. Although the strains causing this season’s flu may not exactly match those in the flu vaccine, the protection the vaccine provides is effective. If you are exposed to a strain in the vaccine you receive, the infection will be less severe or even negligible.

In fact, the CDC reports that the flu vaccine has been shown to reduce the risk of having to go to the doctor with the flu by 40% to 60%. Flu vaccination among adults was also associated with a 26% lower risk of intensive care unit admission and a 31% lower risk of death from flu, compared to people who were unvaccinated.

All people age 6 months and older are encouraged to receive a flu vaccine every year. The flu vaccine is especially important for people at higher risk of having serious complications from the virus, including:

  • People with chronic health conditions, such as asthma, diabetes and lung disease
  • Pregnant people
  • People age 65 and older
  • Children
  • People who live in nursing homes or other long-term care facilities

Additionally, vaccinating a majority of San Diego residents can lead to a reduction in flu cases and their severity, as well as help local hospitals ensure that their emergency departments and ICUs are not overwhelmed. This would allow us to not just handily care for our COVID-19 patients, but also other high-risk events, such as heart attacks and accidents.

Know When to Get Vaccinated

Early analysis of this year’s flu season shows it is following the trends of past seasons that had a high number of flu cases. And the cases seem to be occurring earlier in the season, which means people should not wait to get vaccinated.

The time to get the flu vaccine is now. And you can even receive a flu vaccine and COVID-19 vaccine at the same time, though experts recommend receiving the shots in different arms.

Talk to your doctor if you have questions about the flu vaccine or are not feeling well. If you have a moderate-to-severe illness with or without a fever, the CDC recommends you wait until you recover to receive the flu vaccine. However, you may be able to be vaccinated if your illness is mild and without a fever.

Leslie Thomson is the manager of Sharp HealthCare Employee Occupational Health.