Dr Blum COVID opinion panel

Montage Health strongly encourages flu vaccinations this fall

Author: Dr. Martha Blum, medical director, infection prevention, Montage Health

Many have asked me what they should expect with respiratory viruses this winter. With COVID-19 still circulating in the community, they ask “How can I best protect myself and the ones I love? Should I get the flu shot? Can I get the COVID-19 shot and the flu shot at the same time?”

The bad news is that during the winter months, respiratory illness such as the flu, COVID-19, and RSV tend to circulate more widely. Why? Because people move their events and gatherings indoors where respiratory viruses can spread more easily. And, although the flu was not prevalent last year in our community, that will likely change this year, as kids are back in school, and events have opened back up.

The good news is that there are things that we can do to reduce our chances of getting or spreading respiratory viruses, including washing our hands frequently, masking when indoors and around others outside our family circle, staying home when you are sick, and getting vaccinated. And, for more good news, the flu vaccine is safe to get at the same time you get your first, second, or booster dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. While the flu and COVID-19 have similar symptoms, vaccination against one does not protect against the other, and neither vaccine interferes with the effectiveness of the other.

In the recent past, Community Hospital of the Monterey Peninsula and other area hospitals have experienced record numbers of patients in our emergency rooms in the fall and winter. The main culprit? The flu. In the winter of 2019-2020, before the pandemic hit, Community Hospital was seeing a high number of flu cases, much higher than the prior flu season. We hope to help prevent this from recurring this flu season.

In preparation for this winter’s flu season, most Montage Health employees will receive the flu shot before the end of October. Why do we do it? First, to protect our patients. The flu can be transmitted to someone else 24 hours before symptoms even appear. Some people with the flu don’t even exhibit all the symptoms. Second, we do not want to miss work. A typical flu can keep a healthcare worker out for up to 7 days. We want to be here to care for our patients.

Now, about some flu vaccine myths:

  • You cannot get the flu from the vaccine. Vaccination may cause some people to feel feverish, achy, and run down — symptoms commonly associated with viruses. But these symptoms after vaccination are mild, short-lived, and an indicator that the immune system is working to make antibodies to protect you in case you are exposed.
  • Getting the flu is not better than getting the flu vaccine. Flu can be a very serious illness that can result in hospitalization or even death. In an average year, more than 200,000 people are hospitalized because of complications related to the flu. Many people wait to get the vaccine thinking that if they get it later, it will cover them the whole season. It takes two weeks for the vaccination to work at its full potential, and some people get exposed and sick with the flu during that time. Don’t wait for flu to be widespread to get vaccinated. The Centers for Disease Prevention and Control (CDC) recommend that the best time to get the flu vaccine is in October, not January or February.

It is true that the flu vaccination may not protect against all strains of flu — but it does cover the most common ones. If a vaccinated person does get the flu, the severity and length of symptoms tend to be lessened. Getting the flu vaccine not only protects you; it protects those around you, especially those who are most vulnerable. People at the highest risk for flu complications are those under 5 or over 65 years of age. In addition, pregnant women and those with chronic health conditions such as diabetes or heart or lung conditions are at greater risk. We recommend those 6 months and older receive the vaccine.

A study cited by the CDC shows that getting a flu vaccination decreases the chances of hospitalization for many groups. For example, flu vaccines decreased the risk of hospitalization in people 50 years and older by up to 77 percent. Chronic disease patients especially can benefit from vaccinations, with a 79-percent reduction in hospitalizations for diabetes patients and a 52-percent decrease for chronic lung disease patients. Children vaccinated for the flu can increase their chances of avoiding a pediatric intensive care unit by 74 percent. Even if you are not at high risk for severe disease and hospitalization, getting vaccinated will decrease the chance of major disruption to your work, school, and/or social schedules that would result if you got the flu.

Flu vaccinations are readily available in our community, and most insurance companies reimburse 100 percent of the vaccine cost. Montage Health has created a flu page with helpful tips, resources, and locations to get the vaccine. Montage Health will also be holding a clinic at Oldemeyer Center in Seaside on October 13 from 4 to 7 p.m. We encourage you to be fully vaccinated — not only to protect yourself, but to protect those around you.