Flu cases in Florida dropped to a record low last year, thanks to COVID-19 precautions.
“People were wearing masks, social distancing, and washing their hands, all of which is extremely effective in preventing the flu,” said Dr. Nishant Anand, BayCare’s executive vice president and chief medical officer.
The Florida Department of Health reported that the percentage of flu patients in emergency rooms and urgent cares during the 2020-2021 season was below the average percent of flu patients in the previous three seasons combined.
Florida may not be so fortunate this flu season. Experts say the end of coronavirus protocols and the return to schools and workplaces could result in a rise in flu infections. They fear a scenario where the healthcare system is overwhelmed by a “twindemic” — a severe flu season unfolding alongside the ongoing pandemic.
Getting one virus weakens the immune system and increases the likelihood of contracting another, Anand said.
That’s why it’s important to get the flu shot. In fact, Anand said Floridians should get vaccinated for both the flu and COVID as soon as possible — and continue to wear masks, wash hands, and practice social distancing.
What is the flu?
The flu, also known as seasonal influenza, is a respiratory infection that can spread quickly among people of all ages. Flu season typically runs from October to March.
While the flu and a common cold can have similar symptoms, Anand said, cold symptoms tend to progress slower, are less serious and rarely include a fever above 101 degrees. A cold can be caused by several hundred viruses but there is no vaccine for it.
How serious is the flu?
Symptoms can range from mild symptoms that last a few days — cough, congestion, fatigue, headache, muscle ache, fever, vomiting, diarrhea — to a bacterial infection that results in pneumonia and death, Anand said.
In 2019, 2,705 people in Florida died from the flu or pneumonia, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
How does the flu spread?
The flu spreads similarly to COVID, Anand said, mainly through respiratory droplets transmitted by coughing, sneezing, and talking. People with the flu can spread the virus up to six feet away.
A less common method of transmission is when people touch a surface or object with the virus and then their mouth, nose, or eye, Anand said.
Do flu vaccines change every year?
Yes. Every year a new formulation for the vaccine is developed based on the most prevalent influenza strains, Anand said.
When should I get the flu shot?
Early October, said Dr. Paul Nanda, family medicine doctor at Tampa General Hospital.
The flu shot lasts about six months. Waiting until the weather cools in early October ensures that the shot remains effective through the winter months, Nanda said. It also takes at least two weeks’ time for the vaccine to take full effect, which means you’ll be protected before Halloween and holiday travel.
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Should kids get the flu shot?
The CDC recommends that everyone older than 6 months get the flu shot. That’s because children who get the flu usually require medical care and possibly hospitalization, especially those under 5.
Children ages 6 months and 8 years old receiving their first or second flu shot should receive the vaccine in two doses, per CDC guidelines. The second shot is administered four weeks after the first.
But it takes an additional two weeks for the vaccine to take full effect, so children in this age group should get their flu shot as soon as possible so they’ll achieve full immunity by Halloween.
A nasal spray flu vaccine is also available for children 2 and over who have issues with needles, Anand said. (Adults under 49 can also use the nasal spray.)
Kids’ are at greater risk of the flu because they tend to infect each other in school and other play settings. They’re also less likely to get the flu shot than adults, Anand said.
“Some parents may or may not want injections for their kids …” he said. “Then some don’t want additional vaccines at all. The good news is, some schools have been making the flu shot available during school hours, which makes it very convenient.”
Do specialized flu shots exist for seniors?
The CDC recommends that those 65 and older get one of two flu shots designed to create a stronger immune response: the Fluzone High-Dose Quadrivalent vaccine or the adjuvanted FLUAD Quadrivalent vaccine. The CDC does not have a preference for either.
But if seniors cannot access the high-dose or adjuvanted vaccine, they should definitely get the regular shot.
Can you get COVID and the flu?
Who is most susceptible to contracting the flu?
People ages 65 and older, chemotherapy patients, and organ transplant recipients who have weakened immune systems are most susceptible to becoming infected, Anand said, and suffering severe symptoms.
Will the COVID vaccine protect you from the flu?
No. The coronavirus and influenza are two different types of viruses, Anand said. Each has its own vaccine.
Can I get the flu and COVID vaccines at the same time?
Absolutely. The vaccines can be simultaneously administered, the CDC announced in August, reversing last year’s guidelines.
Older or immunocompromised Floridians who are eligible for the COVID booster shot can schedule both vaccines for the same appointment. But if you haven’t gotten the COVID vaccine yet, you should also get it and the flu shot together.
I’m pregnant. Should I get the flu shot?
Yes. Anand recommends that expectant mothers with questions about their specific pregnancies consult their OB-GYN.
Does the flu shot have side effects?
All vaccines come with potential side effects, but Nanda said flu shot side effects tend to be mild. Many will experience soreness in the injected arm and redness around the injection site for about a day. Some may also feel fatigued the next day.
How can I get my flu shot?
Individuals can set up an appointment with their primary care doctor or local health department or they can book an appointment at their local pharmacy. Many pharmacies also offer the shot on a walk-in basis.
Online flu season resources
Click here to use the Florida Department of Health’s flu shot finder.
Learn more about influenza from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The American Academy of Pediatrics offers flu guidance for children.
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