Health and Wellness

Flu season could be 'unpredictable' due to Covid — here's how to stay safe and when to get the flu vaccine

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A nurse administers a flu vaccination shot at a free clinic held at a local library on October 14, 2020 in Lakewood, California.
Mario Tama | Getty Images

Barely more than half of Americans have gotten fully vaccinated against Covid, and another important shot is already looming: the flu vaccine.

This year's flu season will be particularly brutal, experts say. Usually, flu seasons are easier to handle when some portion of the population has a natural immunity, due to getting infected the previous year. But since many Americans spent last fall and winter relentlessly washing hands and socially distancing, fewer people than normal got the flu.

That means an above-average number of people are at risk now, especially as more Americans have let down their guard against Covid in recent months.

The best way to prevent getting the flu is to get the flu vaccine, which only 48% of American adults did in late 2019 and early 2020, during the last pre-Covid flu season. Here's why a flu vaccine could be extra useful this year, and when you should get it:

Why the flu vaccine matters more this year

This season, the flu will be "a little bit unpredictable," Dr. Clare Rock, associate professor of medicine in the Division of Infectious Diseases at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, tells CNBC Make It.

One reason: Scientists usually develop the annual influenza vaccines based on the composition of the flu strains that circulated the year before. Last year's anomaly means it's trickier to make this year's vaccine, Rock says.

When vaccines are "well-matched" to the circulating flu virus, they can reduce the risk of illness by between 40% and 60%, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This year's number may be harder to predict.

That's no reason to forgo your flu shot this year. No vaccine is ever 100% effective, and if you're vaccinated, you're significantly less likely to get severely ill. "The thought is that this flu vaccine this year is going to be as effective as it typically is," Rock says. "But there's just one more challenge that has gone into the mix."

Another challenge: the potential of the flu and Covid circulating at the same time. "During the Covid pandemic, there are troubles potentially around every corner," Rock says. "So I think the premise that we're taking really is prepare for the worst and hope for the best."

A recent University of Pittsburgh study, yet to be peer-reviewed, used mathematical modeling to determine what a worst-case scenario could look like. The researchers determined that this flu season could result in as many as 600,000 hospitalizations, if vaccination rates are low and this year's strain is especially contagious.

For perspective, that's about three times as many flu-related hospitalizations as the U.S. typically sees in a year.

How to stay safe from both the flu and Covid

First, get your flu shot. It's the easiest way to reduce your chances of contracting the virus. As White House chief medical advisor Dr. Anthony Fauci told NBC News on Sept. 9: "We don't want to have a bad flu season complicating what we're seeing already with Covid-19."

At this point in the pandemic, many hospitals around the country are overwhelmed by Covid cases. Your flu shot could help you avoid hospitalization for non-Covid reasons, an easy way to help relieve some of that strain.

If you have health insurance, you can get a free flu shot at most pharmacies, as well as many health clinics, colleges and workplaces. If you don't have insurance, you can expect to pay around $40 for the shot, or as much as $74 if you require an egg-free version of the vaccine due to an allergy.

Second, after getting your flu shot, be strict about wearing a mask in public places and maintaining good hand hygiene, especially after coughing and sneezing. If you're sick, stay home and avoid close contact with other people to prevent the spread.

Like Covid, the flu spreads primarily through respiratory droplets when an infected person coughs, sneezes or talks. In rare cases, the virus can spread on surfaces. Many people are more lax now about wearing masks and social distancing compared with last year, which could lead to an earlier and more dangerous flu season.

The CDC says it's likely that the flu and Covid will both circulate this fall and winter, and yes, it's possible to get infected with both simultaneously. They have similar symptoms — such as fever, chills or cough — so getting tested when you're feeling iffy is about to become additionally important.

The constant vigilance can be tiring, but those simple steps are why so many people avoided getting sick last year and could help you avoid both Covid and the flu this year.

When to get your flu shot

The CDC recommends getting your flu shot in early fall, between now and the end of October. That part is normal: The timing helps prepare your immune system before flu activity peaks, usually between December and February.

"Similar to the Covid vaccine, it takes a couple of weeks after you've had the [flu] vaccine for your immune system to respond," Rock says. "So, you want to make sure that you have adequate immunity when we start into the flu season."

Here's the abnormal part: This year, flu shot timing could line up with when some people are expected to get Covid booster shots.

That could be good news, since getting two vaccines on the same day is easier than making repeat trips to a doctor's office or pharmacy. Rock says it's safe to get both on the same day, adding that your clinician will likely give the vaccines in different arms to reduce any discomfort caused from the side effects.

On the other hand, some experts say Covid vaccine hesitancy could decrease the number of people who get the flu vaccine this year. "Even among people who've received the COVID-19 vaccine, there is a kind of vaccine weariness," Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease expert at Vanderbilt University, told Healthline in late July.

If flu shots are already available near you, don't wait for Covid boosters to become available — go ahead and get your flu vaccine. It's currently unclear when booster shots could be administered and to whom.

And if you're unable to get your shot right away, know that flu vaccines are typically available well into January. "It's better late than never, for sure," Rock says.

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