Mask mandates and social distancing resulted in last year’s flu season being milder than those before the pandemic, but the lifting of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) safety restrictions may cause the number of flu cases to increase this year, according to a press release.
David Cennimo, an infectious disease expert at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, said that individuals should get their flu vaccine to prevent health care systems from being overwhelmed with both COVID-19 and flu cases.
Last year’s flu season was primarily driven by the A(H3N2) strain, which was covered in last year’s vaccination and will be included this year as well, he said. Approximately 8 million to 13 million cases of the flu resulted in approximately 14,000 deaths.
“As precautions loosen, we are seeing rates rise,” he said. “Pediatric deaths, for example, rose from one death in the 2020–2021 season to 33 this past season. In comparison, 199 children died from influenza in the 2019–20 flu season.”
People older than 6 months of age should receive a flu vaccine by late October to prevent the premature waning of immunity. The vaccine takes two weeks to be effective, so individuals can still get the flu during that period, and will remain effective for approximately six months, he said.
Vaccination is especially important for individuals old than 65 years old, those with chronic health conditions, pregnant women and essential workers, according to the release.
Flu vaccines have an extremely small chance of side effects, like an allergic reaction for those allergic to eggs, but those individuals can either be monitored during vaccine administration or get a form of the vaccine that has not been made in eggs, he said.
He said that though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention initially discouraged getting any COVID-19 vaccine at the same time as the flu shot, individuals can now get them together as this does not affect either vaccine’s efficacy.
Both COVID-19 and the flu are spread mostly through contact and respiratory droplets, and while contagiousness varies between the illnesses, both can be spread before an individual is aware that they were infected, he said.
“As we have seen with asymptomatic cases of COVID-19, people can unknowingly have the flu and gravely affect vulnerable elderly, children and those who have impaired immune systems, such as cancer patients and people with HIV or pulmonary disease,” Cennimo said. “The more you suppress influenza through vaccination, the less opportunity the virus has to mutate and infect more people.”