The flu infection rate had been relatively low this year, but in the past couple weeks several outbreaks have occurred throughout the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). More than 90% of these cases have been in children and young adults.
“Getting your flu shot this fall is more important than ever before,” says Matthew Ferrari, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Dynamics, Penn State.
Not only can influenza be dangerous for people who are vulnerable, he says, but with more influenza out there, more people may mistake their symptoms for COVID-19 and vice versa.
“This could increase the demand for COVID-19 testing, which is already limited,” says Ferrari. “And if more people who don’t have COVID-19 are taking tests, then the percentage of tests that are COVID positive will go down, which isn’t bad on its own, but does make it harder to interpret trends in actual COVID-19 numbers. We can do a better job of monitoring the COVID situation if it is less muddled by influenza.”
At the same time, if people incorrectly assume they have the flu when they have COVID-19, they could unwittingly spread SARS-CoV-2 to others.
In addition, Ferrari notes that health systems are already overburdened with COVID-19 patients. “The flu vaccine will prevent unnecessary health care visits,” he says. “This will help everyone, since you and others are less likely to get high-quality care in an overburdened system.”
“Not only that,” he adds, “COVID-19 has already caused so many of us to miss friends, family and milestones. Flu can do the same, so getting both the flu and the COVID-19 vaccines will help us all continue to do the things we love. For all these reasons, I highly recommend that everyone in the Penn State community get their COVID and flu shots before the holidays and protect not only themselves, but also their loved ones.”
Ferrari stressed that the COVID-19 vaccine is not designed to protect against the flu, and strongly advised people to get both the COVID-19 vaccine and a flu shot. Experts note that getting both the vaccines at the same time is safe.
At the University Park campus, a flu vaccine clinic for students will be held on Nov. 30 in the Student Health Center. In addition, flu vaccines are available at most pharmacies and doctor’s offices. Employees can use their Penn State health insurance cards to obtain a flu shot at any network pharmacy or primary care physician’s office at no cost to the employee.
The CDC recommends an annual flu vaccination for everyone 6 months and older, with few exceptions, through primary care physicians, health departments or local pharmacies. Learn more about this year's flu vaccination at the CDC's website.