Nationwide, public health experts have been touting flu shots as even more important than normal because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Teton County public health coordinator Rachael Wheeler is coming to the defense of the flu shot on its own merits.
“The flu vaccine is actually very important every year,” she said.
But, given the global pandemic and worry that a wave of sick people could overwhelm hospital capacities, the situation is more critical than usual.
“With this year in the mix, to help ensure that the community lessens the burden on health care providers for vaccine preventable illnesses, we would highly encourage people to get the flu vaccine,” she said.
At Friday’s community update, St. John’s Health CEO Dr. Paul Beaupre said people being vaccinated would help doctors. He and Teton County Director of Health Jodie Pond emphasized that physicians and caregivers will see people with flu-like symptoms, which often are the same for influenza and the novel coronavirus.
“At least knowing that someone has been vaccinated will be helpful in their decision tree,” Beaupre said.
Flu vaccines come in a couple of flavors. The quadrivalent shot uses four strains of the virus, calibrated to reflect which ones scientists think will be most prevalent.
The high-dose shot for people 65 and older contains more of the inactivated viral material than the standard shot. That aims to produce a stronger reaction because changes in older people’s immune systems can cause them to have a smaller immune response to the standard shot, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Though flu shots are considered important because of the presence of the coronavirus, they will not protect a person against COVID-19 because the diseases are different. The Journal of the American Medical Association even reported in August that although the likelihood is low, a person could conceivably be infected with both at the same time.
“That would be terrible,” Wheeler said.
Unlike vaccines such as those given for measles, the flu shot might not stop a person from getting influenza. Studies show a roughly 50% to 60% effectiveness rate in younger adults, which some take as a reason not to get vaccinated.
From the public health perspective, any protection is worth it. Even if the vaccine isn’t 100% effective, it still jumpstarts the antibody response, so it can lessen the severity of a flu case even if it doesn’t prevent one.
Locals getting their flu shots could also help when a COVID-19 vaccine becomes widely available.
The distribution schedule for such a vaccine is “convoluted,” Beaupre said Friday. “But one thing that’s clear is for those communities that have demonstrated a willingness to accept vaccination, they will be moved quickly up the list to be able to get their hands on the COVID-19 vaccination.”
The Health Department will start administering vaccines Monday by appointment only. In previous years, walk-ins were allowed, but appointments will limit the amount of time people have to wait. Other clinics and pharmacies may offer walk-in vaccinations, so Wheeler encouraged people to call their provider to find the best option for them.
All in all, the pandemic could push more people to get a flu shot, if only to control what they can during an unpredictable infectious disease season.
“There’s always people who go both ways … but this could be one of those years that people are like, ‘Oh, I should maybe get it,’ ” Wheeler said.
— Jennifer Dorsey contributed to this report.