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Doctors expect a bad flu season. Here’s what Tampa Bay should know

With the end of pandemic safety measures, influenza could come roaring back.
Experts worry that a severe flu season coupled with COVID-19 this winter will overwhelm hospitals.
Experts worry that a severe flu season coupled with COVID-19 this winter will overwhelm hospitals.
Published Oct. 15|Updated Oct. 15

Florida may face high levels of the flu this winter with COVID-19 precautions largely abandoned.

Influenza cases flatlined in the state during the 2020-2021 season thanks to pandemic safety measures like masking and social distancing. Infections were also lower than usual last winter, but spiked during the springtime this year.

Experts worry that a severe flu season coupled with COVID-19 will overwhelm hospitals that are already grappling with a shortage of nurses.

Flu is a highly contagious virus and can quickly spread through families who gather for the holidays, said Jacquelyn Cawley, a doctor and executive at BayCare Health System. Influenza makes people “feel pretty lousy” and can force them to miss several days of work.

Flu can be deadly and cause severe complications such as pneumonia. High-risk groups include children under age 5, pregnant women and residents 65 and older.

The flu shot is effective at preventing infection and protecting those who are susceptible to severe illness, said Cawley, who also encouraged people to wash their hands well and stay away from others when sick.

Related: Is COVID-19 winding down? Scientists say no.

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, a cold tends to progress slower, is less serious and rarely includes a fever above 101 degrees, Nishant Anand, a former BayCare Health System executive, said last year. 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 issues that last a few days — cough, congestion, fatigue, headache, muscle ache, fever, vomiting and diarrhea — to a bacterial infection that results in pneumonia and death.

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-19 mainly through respiratory droplets transmitted by coughing, sneezing and talking. People with the flu can spread the virus up to 6 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.

Related: CDC director announces shake-up, citing COVID mistakes

When should I get the flu shot?

Get the vaccine by the end of October or early November, Cawley said.

It takes at least two weeks for the vaccine to take full effect, which means you’ll be protected before holiday travel.

Every year, a new formula for the vaccine is developed based on the most prevalent strains.

Should kids get the flu shot?

Everyone 6 months and older should get the flu shot, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That’s because children who get the flu may require medical care and possibly hospitalization, especially those under 5.

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Children ages 6 months to 8 years old receiving the flu vaccine for the first time, or those in this age group who have only gotten one dose previously, should get two shots this year instead of one, per federal guidelines. The second shot is administered four weeks after the first. It takes an additional two weeks for the vaccine to take full effect.

A nasal spray flu vaccine is also available for children 2 and over who have issues with needles. (Adults 49 and under 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.

Related: CDC drops quarantine, distancing recommendations for COVID

Do specialized flu shots exist for seniors?

People who are 65 and older, or chemotherapy patients and organ transplant recipients with weakened immune systems, are most susceptible to becoming infected and suffering severe symptoms, Anand said.

Those 65 and older should get one of three flu shots designed to create a stronger immune response: the Fluzone High-Dose Quadrivalent vaccine, the Flublok Quadrivalent recombinant vaccine or the Fluad Quadrivalent adjuvanted vaccine, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

These shots are potentially more effective in this age group, according to federal health officials, but if older adults can’t access them, they should get a regular flu vaccine.

Related: Norwegian Cruise Line to drop requirement for COVID-19 test

Can I get the flu and COVID-19 vaccines at the same time?

Absolutely. If you haven’t gotten the COVID-19 vaccine yet — or the latest coronavirus booster shot — you should get it and the flu vaccine.

I’m pregnant. Should I get the flu shot?

Yes. Expectant mothers with questions about their specific pregnancies should consult their doctor.

Related: Florida’s preventable deaths rose during the pandemic. It wasn’t just COVID.

Does the flu shot have side effects?

All vaccines come with potential side effects, but they 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?

People can schedule an appointment with their primary care doctor, local health department or contact a pharmacy, which may provide 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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