An interview with MUSC’s Infectious Disease Specialist Scott Curry, MD, and Family Medicine Physician Joylyn Yeazell, MD, at New Horizon Family Health Services.
The flu shot is being touted as one the most important preventive health measures you can take this year. Read our exclusive interview below with top experts on why you should get a flu shot if you haven’t already.
HealthLinks: Is it recommended to have your flu shot before the year is over? Or would early in 2021 still suffice?
Dr. Curry: “Getting a flu shot is far more important than the timing of getting a flu shot. I generally recommend getting vaccinated as soon as it becomes available.”
Dr. Yeazell: “I definitely would not recommend waiting until 2021. It can take two weeks for the body to form a protective response after getting the flu vaccine, and this protection lasts about six months. Flu activity usually peaks between December and February, but the virus can linger through April and even into May. Due to this, I usually recommend that my patients get vaccinated by mid to late October.”
HealthLinks: Will the flu make the COVID pandemic worse to a certain degree? For example, having a fever but it is the flu and not COVID. What if you got both viruses at the same time?
Dr. Curry: “Nobody knows for sure. Co-infection has already been observed (rare), and, as one can imagine, patients are generally sicker. The effects of the pandemic will be made worse in general because the flu always packs hospitals to the gills in winter, and COVID-19 fall waves will add to that need for hospital beds. MUSC is preparing to test all patients with influenza-like illnesses for both viruses this fall when tests that can identify both viruses at once become available for inpatients.”
Dr. Yeazell: “The flu has the potential to make the pandemic worse. If someone is sick with the flu, they are more susceptible to COVID (and vice versa) both while they are sick and in the time they are recovering. Plus, since the body would have already been weakened by the first infection, the second infection has the potential to wreak more havoc on the body than it would have if the person was otherwise healthy.”
HealthLinks: What are some of the major differences with the flu virus and the COVID virus?
Dr. Curry: “COVID-19 has about 10 times the lethality of influenza. COVID-19, unlike influenza, seems to have a second phase of illness in many patients after the acute infection is resolved, characterized by clotting disorders, strokes, inflammatory conditions, etc.”
Dr. Yeazell: “First, and most importantly, COVID spreads from person to person much more easily than the flu, and it is definitely more deadly (some studies estimate over 30 times more). Also, people who are sick with COVID are contagious for at least 10 days, whereas most people only spread the flu for four to five days maximum. Second, in regards to symptoms, the loss of smell and taste is unique to COVID. Shortness of breath is more common with COVID, but the flu can also cause this symptom in patients with underlying health conditions. The other early symptoms of the flu and COVID are very similar and can include fever, body aches, fatigue, sinus congestion, upset stomach and cough. Because these diseases can appear so similarly, it is very important that patients self-isolate at the first sign of infection and contact their primary care provider for further instructions on what to do next. Third, we have a vaccine against the flu, so it is preventable. Currently there are no FDA-approved vaccines for COVID.”
HealthLinks: I’m fairly healthy. Do I really need the flu vaccine?
Dr. Yeazell: “Yes, of course. You should always get your flu vaccine unless you are medically unable to safely do so. The two most common reasons that someone cannot get a flu vaccine are being under 6 months old or having a documented serious reaction to a prior flu vaccine. Getting the flu vaccine is not just about you. When more people are vaccinated against the flu, it means that the virus has less chance to spread. We want as many people as possible to be immune because it protects people who have yet to be or cannot be vaccinated – babies or someone’s loved one with an allergy to the vaccine.”
HealthLinks: If you have not had the flu shot every year, does that lessen your immunity?
Dr. Curry: “Any influenza vaccine helps more than no influenza vaccine, but, yes, annual re-vaccination is necessary for full protection. Immunity from the current generation of influenza vaccines does not usually last more than one season, but the primary reason that we re-vaccinate annually is not that the immunity wears off – in many individuals it may persist to the next flu season and beyond – but that the flu strains evolve season to season, and the vaccine must be changed to match. For example, in the 2020-2021 Northern Hemisphere vaccine, three of the four flu virus components – both As and one of the Bs – have been changed since last season.”