Dr. Karen Muratore wants you to get a flu shot this year — especially this year. But not right away.
Although the flu vaccine won’t keep you from getting COVID-19, it could keep you out of the hospital. And that could keep the health care system, which is desperately fighting the pandemic, from becoming overwhelmed.
“Even when there is no coronavirus, during flu season generally hospitals are at full capacity with ICUs and ERs taking the brunt of that,” said Muratore, a primary care physician with Ochsner Health Center. “It would be even more complicated if there is a surge in coronavirus.”
Part of the complication, Muratore said, is that both viral infections share common symptoms — fever, headaches, muscle aches, weakness, nasal discharge, cough and sore throat.
Coronavirus can include loss of taste and smell and sometimes diarrhea, which aren’t usually associated with the flu. It also is possible to have both diseases simultaneously.
Muratore said she knows of no studies that show having both would make either disease more deadly, but she’s concerned that simultaneous infections would weaken the body’s ability to recover.
It takes the flu vaccine about two weeks to provide full protection, Muratore said, and its strongest protection is in the first three months after receiving it.
The peak of flu season is usually December through February. So, she advises patients to wait until mid-October or early November to get their shots to maximize the vaccine’s effectiveness.
“Everybody pushes for people to get the flu shot, so they’re accepting whenever you want to get it as long as you get it,” she said. “It’s still probably not a good idea to get it too early because you want that full impact of the antibodies protecting you through the entire flu season.”
All flu vaccines in a year are identical, so it doesn’t matter if you get one from a doctor or pharmacy, Muratore said.
Those 65 and older should get a high-dose vaccine since their immune systems don’t respond as well to the normal dosage, the physician said.
And, no, you can’t get the flu from a flu shot because the vaccine is made from what is essentially a dead virus, Muratore said.
“I come across that all the time in my office, and sometimes it is like walking into a wall,” she said. “People just won’t believe. When you first get the flu shot, it’s going to take two weeks for the immunity to build up. You could get the flu in that two weeks before that flu vaccine is at full action, so you’re going to blame the vaccine when you were incubating the flu all along.”
Everyone 6 months old and older should be immunized, she said. Protecting younger infants just requires common sense.
“Obviously, the best way to protect your infant from the flu is for everyone around that child to get the flu vaccine,” Muratore said. “Secondly is to use the same safety precautions that people are doing now for corona, which is washing your hands thoroughly, washing off surfaces and keeping sick people away from the infant and breastfeeding. Breastfeeding also can afford protection because the mother has antibodies which can also boost the child’s immunity.”
Muratore believes the pandemic is making the public more receptive to getting the flu vaccine.
“People who have refused it in the past, they’ve shown they’re interested now,” she said. “I’m glad that they’re willing to help bring about herd immunity for the flu so that other people who are more vulnerable don’t get sick. That’s another reason to get the flu shot, to avoid giving the flu to your elderly parents, to people who are immune-compromised. You’re doing your part not only for yourself but for others.”