Fewer COVID precautions this year could mean a resurgence of flu

Marcie Perry rolls-up her sleeve for a flu shot by Germantown Pharmacy pharmacist, Katie Parry Monday Sept. 20, 2021. JIM NOELKER/STAFF
Marcie Perry rolls-up her sleeve for a flu shot by Germantown Pharmacy pharmacist, Katie Parry Monday Sept. 20, 2021. JIM NOELKER/STAFF

Health officials are warning that a decrease in social distancing, masking and other precautions compared to last winter could mean a dangerous resurgence of flu at a time when COVID-19 is not yet under control.

Public health leaders and media reports warned last year of a “twindemic” of flu and COVID-19 that never materialized. Instead the 2021 flu season turned out to be mild with a record low number of influenza cases and hospitalizations. Dr. Michael Dohn, medical director for Public Health - Dayton & Montgomery County, said that the precautions taken at the time to prevent COVID-19 spread also protected most people from the flu.

A lot has changed since then: many more schools are in-person, more people have returned to the office after working at home last winter and precautions like near-universal mask-wearing have decreased.

“The other thing is that last year, more people got the flu vaccine than any other time previously in the history of the flu vaccine in the United States,” Dohn said.

Dohn said the wave of COVID-19 and RSV among children in recent months is an indicator that respiratory illnesses can spread at an alarming rate now.

“As a consequence, this is different than it was last year,” he said. “The flu shot may be more important than it was last year to try and prevent people from getting the flu. And we do know from the studies that getting the flu and COVID at the same time, which is very possible, has much worse outcomes for people. So protecting ourselves from both of those infections is very important.”

To fight the possibility of a twindemic this season, Dohn said everyone should get their flu shot and a coronavirus vaccine as soon as possible. He recommends getting the flu shot by the end of October so the vaccine offers protection throughout the season but says it’s never too late to get one.

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Public Health - Dayton & Montgomery County Medical Director Dr. Michael Dohn
Public Health - Dayton & Montgomery County Medical Director Dr. Michael Dohn

Here are some questions about flu shots answered by Dr. Dohn:

Q: Can I get a flu shot if I have received the COVID vaccine?

Dohn: Yes! In fact, you can even get the flu shot at the same time that you get any of the COVID vaccines. There’s no reason to wait in between the flu shot and the COVID shots. You can get them the same day. Maybe separate arms is a good idea. There is no recommendation anymore to wait between the COVID vaccine and any of the other standard vaccines that they were concerned originally about how well they would perform. There’s now enough information that it’s very safe and all the vaccines will give you full protection if you have them at the same time or close together.

Q: If I wear a mask and social distance around others, do I still need a flu shot?

Dohn: Yes. The flu shot is part of a layered protection approach to preventing influenza. The vaccine is a good foundation to avoid getting sick with influenza. Physical distancing, hand washing, and masks will help prevent illness, as well. And if someone does catch the flu, vaccinated people get less severe cases of influenza – another reason to get the flu shot.

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Q: Can the flu really be that bad?

Dohn: Yes. The flu is a contagious disease affecting the lungs which can lead to serious illness. Although many people with influenza have mild illness, some people may become very sick or even die. This even applies to healthy individuals.

Q: Can the flu vaccine give me a case of the flu?

Dohn: No! The flu vaccine cannot give you the flu. Common side effects from the vaccine are a sore arm, a low fever or achiness. These side effects, if experienced, are mild and short-lived. The risk of suffering the side effects is much better than becoming ill with the flu and missing several days of work or possibly becoming ill enough to be hospitalized.

Q: What if I got a flu vaccine once and still became sick?

Dohn: Even with the flu vaccine there are still reasons why one may have flu-like symptoms:

  • A non-flu virus may be going around. The flu vaccine can only prevent illness caused by flu viruses.
  • You may have been exposed to the flu virus after you got vaccinated but before the vaccine took effect. About two weeks are needed to be fully protected from the flu after vaccination.
  • No vaccine is 100% effective. However, if you get influenza after receiving the vaccine, you are likely to be less ill than if you had not gotten the vaccine.

Have questions about COVID-19, face masks, vaccines, testing, quarantining or anything else pandemic-related? Send them to jordan.laird@coxinc.com. Answers will be published regularly in print and online.