By Craig Miller
It’s especially hard on older patients.
“One of the challenges with flu is that extremes of age — the very young and the very old — are at the highest risk of getting really sick,” notes Benjamin.
He adds that people with chronic diseases get sicker from flu. Diabetes, heart disease and chronic lung disease such as asthma are all risk amplifiers and all are common conditions among older Americans.
Many experts speculate that we’re better prepared for flu season this year precisely because of the pandemic. People have become accustomed to masking, distancing and frequent washing of hands and household surfaces, which just happen to be great prevention tactics for flu.
According to Dr. Megan Ranney, an emergency physician and associate professor at Brown University, “universal masking” can squelch COVID-19 infections by 70% to 90%. Mask wearing in the U.S. has hardly been universal. But despite a leveling off in the spring months, surveys show compliance remained above 60% in the U.S. through the summer. If those numbers hold up, it would likely help tamp down transmission this year.
Each spring, global health agencies collaborate to ferret out the predominant strains of influenza circulating in countries like Chile and Australia, because the Southern Hemisphere gets its annual flu season before the northern half of the planet. They then prepare a vaccine tailored to what’s been circulating. Infection rates and outcomes in those countries also provide a preview of what Americans can expect when it hits here. So far, they’re reporting a relatively mild year.
In a typical year, 40% of Americans get vaccinated for the flu. Benjamin says his organization is pushing to get that number to 60% in 2020. Currently. there is no proven vaccine for COVID-19, though several vaccines are in clinical trials and most experts predict one or more should be widely available by the summer or fall of next year.
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends annual flu shots for everyone over six months of age “ with rare exceptions ” for those with certain types of severe allergies to ingredients used in the vaccine. There are various formulations for different age groups, including a high-dose vaccine approved for people 65 and older (which may be out of stock or in limited supplies at some drugstores), and a nasal spray alternative to the injection. Providers will ask a series of questions to determine the best option for you.
It takes about two weeks for a flu vaccine to take full effect. The seasonal vaccine works better in some years than in others, depending on how closely labs can replicate the specific strain of flu going around.
It’s still too soon in the season to gauge the efficacy of this year’s vaccine, but Benjamin is optimistic.
“Right now we think we’ve got a decent match,” he says, “but only time will tell.”
Craig Miller’s career in broadcasting and journalism spans more than 40 years. Miller launched and edited the award-winning Climate Watch multimedia initiative for KQED in San Francisco, where he remained a science editor until August of 2019. Prior to KQED, he spent two decades as a television reporter and documentary producer at major-market stations, as well as CNN and MSNBC. When he’s not working, his favorite spot is in his kayak on a scenic river or mountain lake.
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