By Steven Gordon, M.D.
Chairman of Cleveland Clinic’s Department of Infectious Disease
The unofficial start of influenza season is almost here. This year, it’s more important than ever to protect yourself by getting a flu shot.
While COVID-19 has cast a dark shadow over 2020, influenza is not something to be taken lightly. Flu is a serious respiratory illness. Tens of thousands of Americans die each year from influenza, with another 140,000 to 810,000 hospitalized. Yet the U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention estimates that less than half of Americans are vaccinated against the flu each year.
This year, in the midst of the global COVID-19 pandemic, that must change. More of us need to be vaccinated against the flu in order to save lives.
For one reason, we need to guard against the risk of co-infection by both influenza and COVID-19. Such a scenario would be devastating and deadly. It also would strain the capacity of the nation’s healthcare system, its caregivers’ mental and physical health, and its stock of personal protective equipment.
Secondly, we’ve seen that robust measures – including a higher rate of vaccination, social distancing and wearing masks – seemed to keep influenza in check in the Southern Hemisphere. Australia, for instance, experienced a 92% decrease in flu deaths.
Often, flu season in the southern hemisphere is a predictor of what our flu season holds. There are no guarantees, though. And if we want to see an influenza season like Australia’s, we need to take similar measures, starting with the flu shot.
COVID-19 and influenza share many similarities. Both are contagious. Both are airborne. And both often result in fever, cough, shortness of breath, achiness and fatigue. COVID-19, however, is deadlier. While there is no vaccine to protect us from COVID-19, there is one to protect us from the flu.
Those at the highest risk for flu-related complications include: adults 65 years and older, children younger than 2 years old, pregnant women, people with a weakened immune system, those living in nursing homes or other long-term care facilities, and those with chronic health conditions, such as asthma, diabetes, COPD and heart disease.
However, everyone – regardless of your risk category – should get a flu shot. Infectious disease officials recommend everyone six months and older should get vaccinated every year by the end of October. It not only protects you, but it protects your loved ones and your community. This is especially important as we continue to see community spread and hospitalizations for COVID-19.
The flu vaccine is safe, as are our healthcare facilities where they are administered. At Cleveland Clinic, we have instituted the following safety measures to protect patients during vaccination:
- Patients will have their temperatures checked, screened for symptoms of COVID-19, and asked to wear masks during their visit
- All caregivers will wear surgical masks and face shields
- Caregivers will change their gloves in between each patient
- Each flu station will be disinfected after each patient
The same precautions that protect against COVID-19 also will help protect against the flu – proper hand hygiene, social distancing, staying home when sick and wearing masks in public.
2020 has been a challenging year. It’s important that we protect ourselves as best we can and that should include rolling up your sleeve for a flu shot.
To read more about how to get your flu vaccination in 2020, visit: clevelandclinic.org/flu