Doctors and public health experts sound like a broken record every year as winter nears: Getting a flu shot is important.
The flu vaccine can reduce someone’s likelihood of getting the flu by as much as 60 percent, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And for those who still might get the flu despite the shot, doctors say it can reduce the severity of their illness.
It might get lumped in with the cold as a common seasonal illness, but health complications from the flu can be far more serious. High fevers and dehydration alone can land someone in the emergency room, but the flu also can lead to pneumonia, or even worse, inflammation of the heart and brain, according to the CDC.
The flu infects millions of Americans each year, and hundreds of thousands are hospitalized.
It can be easy to ignore calls for people to get flu shots, especially for those who are otherwise young and healthy. People in those demographics may not worry about the serious complications, so making a special trip to the pharmacy or to their doctor’s office for a quick shot in the arm might not seem worth the hassle.
But then again, past years didn’t have society coping with a pandemic like the one caused by the coronavirus. With so much already floating around that can be seriously detrimental to someone’s health, city public health officials have warned this year’s flu shot could be the most important flu shot someone might ever get.
Since late spring — outside of a few trouble spots in Brooklyn and Queens — New York has seen a sharp decline in coronavirus cases. Testing levels have skyrocketed, and the positive case rate has, for the most part, remained at 1 percent or lower.
But cooler weather may push people back inside, where it’s easier to spread the virus.
“The flu is deadly,” said Dr. Margaret Aldrich, director of pediatric infection control at The Children’s Hospital at Montefiore. “People sometimes don’t quite realize that because it is something that, for the most part, we have vaccines for, we have medication for, and many people who get the flu have the stay at home, with a milder illness. But it is really important for people to know that influenza does kill people every year in this country.”
Complicating matters more, COVID-19 and the flu share symptoms like fever and cough, health officials said. That could make it trickier for doctors to try and determine if someone just has a seasonal flu, or they actually have the far-more-deadly coronavirus.
Getting vaccinated, and lowering the risk of getting seriously ill or sick at all can be important to keeping schools and workplaces running, Aldrich said.
“Even a low-grade fever is going to be an alarm for your family, for the school,” she said. “It’s going to need to be sorted out — is this influenza? Is this COVID? It’s not going to be necessarily clear up front. And it’s going to cause quite a lot of anxiety and distress for your family, and for your classroom.
“It’s also sort of a practical measure you can take.”
Symptoms aren’t the only thing the flu and COVID-19 share, though. While young and healthy people can — and have — died of both illnesses, there are certain groups particularly at risk for serious complications. Diabetes, emphysema, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and other respiratory or immune disorders can all make both illnesses much more dangerous, Aldrich said — or even deadly.
Flu and pneumonia were the third-highest cause of death in the Bronx in 2015, according to a study of public health in the borough by Montefiore Medical Center, following cancer and heart disease. In 2018, though, Kingsbridge had the highest vaccine rate of any neighborhood in the Bronx, while Riverdale and Kingsbridge had the lowest number of flu cases in the borough.
“There is no shortage of flu vaccine in New York City, however we have observed higher demand for the vaccine earlier this year than in past years,” said Michael Lanza, a spokesman for the city’s health and mental hygiene department. “Demand may exceed vaccine supply in some facilities, but more vaccine is being shipped every week.”
Vaccine production also is expected to continue on for longer to meet demand, according to the CDC. While city health officials do prefer an early vaccination, they note that it’s never too late to get vaccinated. So whether it’s November, January or even March, go get a shot.
Vaccines are available all over the city at chain pharmacies like CVS and Duane Reade, as well as at local pharmacies. For those worried about cost, Lanza said NYC Health + Hospitals clinics often provide low-cost or free vaccines, noting they’re often available with no co-pay through many health insurances.
For extra protection? Keep wearing a mask, wash hands, and maintain at least six feet distancing from people. Those measures slow the spread of the coronavirus, but they can apply to the flu too.
“I just think, if this is one simple thing that we can do to prepare, I would say it’s an easy thing to do,” Aldrich said. “It’s available. It’s something we can all do so that we’re prepared for the worst-case scenario.
“So, I would say optimism, but practicality. You’re still going to lock your door even if you think your car is safe.”