By Craig Miller
Facing the double jeopardy of the deadly COVID-19 pandemic and the annual flu season rushing at us, health experts are doubling down on their usual flu shot appeals.
“This is going to be one of the most important years to get your flu shot,” says Dr. Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association. Benjamin, who just turned 68, says he got his about a month ago.
To back up health officials, California Gov. Gavin Newsom made a special point of getting his own flu shot during a live news briefing in late September.
“I cannot impress upon you more the importance, the power and the potency of getting a flu shot,” Newsom told viewers of his Facebook feed.
So far, some people are getting the message. Dawn Dewey, a pharmacist at a Walgreens /zigman2/quotes/203410933/composite WBA +1.05% drugstore in Greenville, N.Y., has been doing a brisk business in flu shots. She says the rush began earlier than usual this year, though some health authorities suggest waiting until late October, to ensure protection throughout the peak flu season.
“I just think everybody — with the COVID issue — they’re gonna be on top of flu,” Dewey says. She’s doing about 25 flu shots a day in the lone pharmacy of this small Catskills town, more than double the usual number at this stage of the season.
Expecting a higher-than-usual turnout, pharmaceutical companies are shipping more than 190 million doses for the U.S. alone.
Health professionals, already taxed by a pandemic that has claimed more than a million lives globally, are understandably jittery about what this flu season may bring.
“We don’t want to have two major infectious diseases that put people in the hospital,” cautions Benjamin. “We know how seriously COVID taxed our health care system. So if you add influenza, which has a relatively high attack rate as well and puts people in the hospital, that would be a real problem.”
Also, since the two diseases tend to share the same symptoms — fever, chills, muscle aches, cough — widespread testing for coronavirus will become critically important, so doctors and patients know which one they’re dealing with. Since the only way to confirm that is by testing for coronavirus, a rush to sort out the two viruses could put additional stress on the limited supply of COVID-19 test kits.
So far, the COVID-19 virus has killed nearly six times the typical number of people who die from the seasonal flu annually in the United States. But the “regular” flu is nothing to be trifled with, experts say.
“It’s not a benign disease,” warns Benjamin. “People say, ‘Oh, don’t worry, it’s only the flu.’ No, no. This is a serious disease for some people.”
For proof, you need only look at the grim statistics from the 1918 flu pandemic , which caused an estimated 50 million deaths (yes, that’s 50 million) world-wide, some 675,000 of those in the U.S.
Of course, medicine has advanced considerably in the century since that pandemic, when there was no seasonal flu vaccine. But the seasonal flu virus still claims more than 34,000 lives in the U.S. alone in a typical year, and accounts for a half-million hospitalizations.