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Dr. Duchin: It’d be ‘foolish not to protect ourselves’ from flu, COVID-19

A nurse practitioner wears personal protection equipment as she administers a flu vaccination at the CVS pharmacy and MinuteClinic on Sept. 03, 2020 in Key Biscayne, Florida. Heath experts say getting the flu shot this year is important because the dangers of having COVID-19 and the flu simultaneously are still unknown. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Flu season is expected to arrive this fall and winter while COVID-19 is still circulating in the community, which health officials say makes it even more important for people to get a flu vaccination this year.

Dr. Jeff Duchin, health officer for Public Health — Seattle & King County, says hospitals, clinics, and doctors’ offices are likely to be busy caring for COVID-19 and other health needs, so getting a flu vaccine can help keep you and your family out of those settings.

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“Flu vaccine has been shown to reduce the risk of getting the flu by about half, and importantly also reduces the risk for severe illness and hospitalization for those who do get the flu,” Duchin said. “That will both reduce your risk for becoming ill and for needing medical attention. It also helps ensure hospitals and medical resources are available for COVID-19 patients and others who need them.”

By getting vaccinated, Duchin explained, it helps protect our household members and the community at large, especially older adults, young children, pregnant woman, people with chronic medical conditions or weakened immune systems and those at high risk for severe influenza.

Duchin says everyone six months and older is encouraged to get a flu vaccine, especially those at increased risk for severe influenza, and health care or essential workers who have more contact with people.

Another main concern for flu season this year is that the symptoms could be confused for COVID-19.

“With so many shared symptoms, it will be complicated to distinguish between the two and will require testing,” Duchin said.

The health officer recommends that anyone with the shared symptoms — fever, cough, shortness of breath, sore throat, muscle aches, and fatigue — take isolation precautions for COVID-19 and stay away from others for at least 10 days.

“That’s why it’s in everyone’s best interest to get vaccinated and prevent influenza illnesses that might be confused with COVID-19 and avoid preventable visits to a health care provider or hospital,” Duchin said.

The flu vaccine, Duchin says, will not prevent against COVID-19, but it does prevent against four types of influenza that may circulate each season.

“Vaccines for COVID-19 are currently undergoing large scale safety and effectiveness testing and have not been evaluated or approved for use outside of these studies,” he said. “But we do have a vaccine for flu that has been safely given to millions of Americans for more than 50 years. And it works.”

Snohomish County is also strongly urging people, especially vulnerable populations, to get a flu shot this year. Children under 19 are eligible for free flu vaccines through the county.

“Get your flu shot by the end of October,” said Dr. Yuan-Po Tu with the Everett Clinic earlier this week. “Now is as good as any time.”

Tu echoed Duchin by recognizing that while it’s possible to get the flu even if you’re vaccinated, the vaccine will blunt the severity of illness, and will hopefully help reduce the strain on hospitals that are already taking care of patients with COVID-19.

You can get a flu shot from a doctor’s office, community health center, or pharmacy. Any location following pandemic guidance and taking steps to protect clients from COVID-19 should be a safe place to get a flu vaccine, Duchin said, but it is recommended that you protect yourself and others by staying six feet apart, wearing a mask, and washing your hands.

Find out where flu vaccines are available near you online here.

Many of the actions that prevent the spread of COVID-19 could also help prevent the spread of the flu, Duchin added, including taking part in fewer activities outside of your home, wearing face coverings, washing your hands, improving the ventilation indoors, and staying at least six feet away from others.

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“Even in a typical year it’s not possible to predict when the flu season will start or how severe it will be,” Duchin said. “If enough of us follow the recommended COVID-19 prevention measures, it’s possible that the upcoming flu season could be less severe than usual. But we can’t bank on that and it would be foolish not to protect ourselves.”

“We also don’t know what the combination of COVID-19 and influenza will mean for people who get infected at the same time or close together, but there is concern that the combination could lead to serious illnesses,” he added.

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