By Jyotu Sandhu and Simona Valanciute
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention predicts that both the coronavirus and flu will spread significantly this fall and winter, which could overwhelm health care facilities. Seniors are already at higher risk of serious health problems from COVID-19, and this year’s flu season will likely compound those worries for older adults and those who care for them.
However, if you keep these four simple tips in mind, you and your loved ones have a better chance of staying healthy — and keeping your friends and neighbors safe as well.
• Get a flu shot. According to the CDC, getting a flu shot lowers your risk of serious illness, even if you do pick up one of the many strains of flu that will likely spread this fall and winter. During 2018-2019, the CDC reports flu vaccinations prevented an estimated 4.4 million influenza illnesses, 2.3 million influenza-associated medical visits, 58,000 influenza-associated hospitalizations, and 3,500 influenza-associated deaths. Although it’s difficult to appreciate on an individual level, this significantly alleviated the strain from the medical community as a whole and benefited public health overall.
Flu vaccines have been shown to reduce the risk of flu infection, hospitalization, and death for both you and those around you — and this year they will save hospital resources for patients with COVID-19. If you are caring for an aging loved one, it’s particularly important that both of you get one.
As we know, heart disease is prevalent and the leading cause of death in America. A meta-analysis study from 2013 found that flu vaccination improved cardiac outcomes in high-risk patients.
• Keep taking COVID-19 precautions. The flu shot does NOT protect anyone from COVID-19. However, many of the same COVID-19 precautions we have all grown accustomed to over the past nine months (washing your hands, keeping at least six feet apart from people outside your household, wearing masks in public places, and not touching your eyes, nose, or mouth), are also pretty good at preventing the spread of flu viruses. Make sure both you and anyone you are caring for follow all these precautions. Although we are hoping for a milder flu season due to the precautions we are taking with COVID-19, we still strongly encourage people to get their flu vaccines since the outcome of dealing with both infections at once can be devastating.
• Time your flu shot properly. In a recent interview, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases and head of U.S. efforts to stop the coronavirus, recommended getting your flu shot this year “toward the middle and end of October”— in other words, right now. This way, it won’t wear off in February or early March while we’re still in flu season.
• Encourage everyone in your life to get a flu shot, no matter how old they are. It’s not just seniors who are at risk during flu season — babies and young children are particularly vulnerable as well. In fact, patients of all ages can suffer serious complications from the flu, and even die. Flu shots protect pregnant women, are an important preventive tool for people with chronic health conditions such as heart disease and diabetes, and can be lifesaving for children. Children are also at risk of severe illness as well and can spread disease to others. The CDC recommends everyone 6 months of age and older get vaccinated.
Despite all these benefits, only about half of Americans get an annual flu vaccine. Meanwhile, flu viruses continue to cause millions of illnesses, hundreds of thousands of hospitalizations, and tens of thousands of deaths. Unless we are careful, hospitals may become overwhelmed by both COVID-19 and flu patients this fall and winter.
But, per the CDC, the solution is simple: “many more people could be protected from the flu if more people got vaccinated.” The more people who get vaccinated against the flu, the fewer people will get seriously ill — and that’s something we can all work toward together as we continue to battle the coronavirus pandemic into the new year.
Jyotu Sandhu, MD, is a family medicine and sports medicine doctor with Sharp Rees-Stealy Medical Group, a multispecialty medical group with 19 locations offering services such as primary and specialty care, laboratory, physical therapy, radiology, pharmacy and urgent care. Simona Valanciute is the president and CEO of San Diego Oasis, an award-winning nonprofit organization serving people age 50 and better, who pursue healthy aging through lifelong learning, active lifestyles, and community service.