One of the keys to slowing and ending the COVID-19 pandemic is a safe and effective vaccine. In the meantime, there’s another vaccine that is also key to protecting you this winter — and because of the coronavirus, you may have yet another reason to get a flu shot this year.
To be clear, the flu shot can’t protect you from COVID-19. But just because it can’t give you the antibodies you need to fight off the coronavirus, health authorities and experts are urging people to get the flu vaccine this year especially, fearing that we’ll be facing a “twindemic” of both influenza and coronavirus.
Additionally, a preliminary (not yet peer-reviewed), observational study was released in July that suggests that being inoculated against the flu might reduce the mortality risk of COVID-19. Researchers examined 92,664 COVID-19 patients in Brazil and looked at outcomes in those who received a flu shot in 2020 and those who did not (Brazil’s peak flu season is April to July). The results showed that those who had the flu shot and got sick with COVID-19 were 17% less likely to die from coronavirus complications.
Again, we’re not saying that getting a flu shot will protect you against getting the coronavirus or developing severe complications from COVID-19. But given that we do not yet have a coronavirus vaccine, researchers are looking at any and all options to slow the spread of the virus and prevent people who are infected from dying. A big part of that is keeping ourselves healthy so that another virus — like influenza — doesn’t weaken our immune systems.
The CDC is advising the public to start getting their flu shots now, saying the best time to do it is in September or October. There are lots of things to consider when it comes to the flu vaccine and COVID-19. To answer all of your questions, I asked two experts to weigh in.
Can the flu shot help protect you from COVID-19?
Simply put, the answer is no. The research from Brazil was an observational study that analyzed data on how the flu vaccine might affect COVID-19 outcomes, rather than a clinical trial to test how effective the flu vaccine would be against the coronavirus. And though the authors found that having a flu shot correlated with fewer deaths from COVID-19, they acknowledge that there are many variables that affect the patient’s outcome, including their genes and health status prior to contracting the virus.
When asked her opinion on the study, infectious disease expert Dr. Sandra Kesh said, “It’s a little bit too soon to draw any conclusions from a study like this. One of the things that we always theorize about in the infectious disease and immune world is that you’re activating the immune system by getting a vaccine so that might help with other infections, but it’s all theoretical.”
The concept she is referring to is called bystander immunity, and she notes it could explain the outcomes in the study. “I think it’s unclear to what extent that’s at play versus other factors [in this study],” she says. “For example, are people who get a flu vaccine just more careful in general or in better health in general? Is the lower mortality rate even from the flu vaccine itself or other factors that happen to exist in that population? It will be very interesting to see what happens when they actually publish this in a peer-reviewed publication.”
3 reasons you should still get the flu shot this year
Despite the lack of evidence that the flu shot can protect you against the coronavirus, the authors of the Brazil study and other medical experts agree that it’s important for the public to get the flu vaccine. That’s especially true for people who are at high risk for severe COVID-19 cases, such as those with ongoing health issues.
Even though we don’t know everything about how the flu vaccine might impact COVID-19 outcomes, keep reading for more reasons why it’s important to get the flu vaccine this year.
1. To avoid getting flu and COVID-19 at the same time (yes, that is possible)
“These viruses are two completely different species, so getting vaccinated for one will not protect you against the other,” says Dr. Daren Wu, chief medical officer at Open Door Family Medical Center. “What you definitely do not want is the one-two punch of getting both viruses, which is entirely possible.”
If there’s anything worse than being sick once, it would be getting sick with two potentially serious diseases at the same time.
“You don’t want to get the flu and COVID at the same time,” Dr. Kesh agrees. “That is a situation that we really have to try to prevent. In an older population it would be potentially disastrous, people who are coinfected are going to have a really hard time. And even in younger adults, one of those infectious diseases really knocks you out, but the two together would be very concerning.”
Additionally, Dr. Wu argues that getting the flu shot is important because getting sick can lower your immune system and make you more susceptible to other infections. “Our minds are on COVID-19, but getting the flu will lower your immune system and can make you more susceptible to all sorts of secondary infections, including bacterial infections and other viruses such as COVID-19,” he says.
2. Flu and COVID-19 symptoms can look similar
Flu and COVID-19 have a lot of overlap in symptoms, which can be really confusing if you start to get sick. But getting the flu vaccine can help you feel more confident that it’s not the flu — or at least that you don’t have the flu in addition to another infection.
“Other than the loss of smell and taste, the symptoms of COVID-19 and the flu almost completely overlap. And they will of course test you, but we know the tests are not perfect and a lot of this will be a clinical diagnosis. So that will help figure out what is causing your symptoms,” Dr. Kesh says.
3. To lower the rates of infectious disease
The reality is, we are facing a global pandemic that is not ending soon and we need to prepare for the onset of another infectious disease that can be life-threatening at the same time. But the good news is that what you are doing to prevent COVID-19 (like wearing a face mask and social distancing) can also help prevent the flu, making these safety measures doubly important in the coming months.
“I think [people need] to remember they both spread really the same way (in close contact or droplet spread) and aerosol transmission is probably a factor in COVID-19, but we don’t know how much of a factor yet,” says Dr. Kesh. “Mask use and social distancing is never 100%, going into the cold weather season where people are going to be indoors more, there’s going to be a lot more opportunity for spread for flu and COVID-19. So that gives you another reason to protect yourself.”