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Fauci Says the Flu Is Not ‘Trivial’ and to Get Your Flu Shot

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October is considered the start of flu season which often peaks in February. Westend61 / Getty Images
  • This year’s influenza vaccine is likely a good match, according to experts.
  • A light flu season in the Southern Hemisphere is a good sign for the United States as flu season starts this month.
  • Experts recommend everyone over 6 months should get the flu shot unless their physician advises against it.

Now’s the time to gear up for flu season, as cases are probably going to pick up any day now, putting the country in prime position for a “twindemic” in which both the flu and COVID-19 are swirling around.

On Thursday, the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases (NFID) and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) hosted an hour-long webcast in which leading infectious disease specialists, including the country’s top epidemiologist Dr. Anthony Fauci, discussed predictions for the upcoming 2020–2021 influenza season and tips for how people can protect themselves from contracting the flu during the pandemic.

Despite observing a very light flu season in the Southern Hemisphere, the expert panelists said the Northern Hemisphere is not in the clear yet.

The 2020–2021 flu season will largely depend on how much of the population gets vaccinated against the flu and how strictly we adhere to safety precautions like social or physical distancing, avoiding indoor gatherings, wearing face masks, and practicing good hand hygiene.

We don’t yet have a vaccine for COVID-19, which has led to 7.2 million cases and 207,331 deaths in the United States as of Thursday, Oct. 1, but we do have a good tool against influenza.

And this year’s vaccine seems to be a pretty good match.

“It is a serious disease; it is not trivial. Let’s do what we can with the tools that we have, and we have a good tool in an influenza vaccine,” Fauci said.

Each flu season, the Northern Hemisphere looks toward the Southern Hemisphere to get some clues for how its flu season will go down.

In the Southern Hemisphere, flu season lasts from April to the end of August.

They’ve already been through their flu season and saw the lowest number of flu cases recorded in years.

On top of that, the United States recently saw historically low flu transmission rates this summer, according to a recent CDC Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

So, does that mean our flu season may also be a light one? Not so fast, the experts say.

In an interview with Healthline, Dr. William Schaffner, the medical director of NFID, said during the webcast that the mild flu season in Australia and New Zealand can be attributed to the area’s high vaccination rates and strict adherence to safety precautions like physical distancing.

In the United States, it may not be so cut and dry, especially as parts of the country reopen indoor restaurants, schools, colleges, and bars while others stay closed down.

“Our population is very divided into two groups: the really careful people and the carefree, careless people,” Schaffner told Healthline.

Consequently, we really don’t know what exactly will unfold this flu season.

If there’s one thing the health experts on the panel want people to glean, it’s the importance of getting vaccinated against influenza this year.

This year’s flu season will largely depend on how much of the population gets vaccinated, according to Schaffner.

“The most important message you will hear today is this: Get your annual flu vaccine now,” Schaffner said.

Everyone 6 months and older who has no contradictions for the vaccine should get their flu shot now.

October is the golden month for getting vaccinated since flu season typically picks up in November and peaks in late January or early February, Schaffner said.

“If there was ever a time to get the flu vaccine, this is the year,” he said in the webcast.

The pneumococcal vaccination is critical, too, for children younger than 2, people with certain medical conditions, those who smoke, and adults 65 and up.

Pneumococcal disease causes 150,000 hospitalizations every year — 5 to 7 percent of whom will die.

“This is a serious disease, particularly for the elderly,” Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said of pneumococcal disease.

“So far, so good,” Schaffner told Healthline.

The strains we’re starting to see are well matched to the strains the vaccine targets, according to experts.

In Australia, H1N1 was the predominant strain, and that usually indicates what’ll go around in the Northern Hemisphere first.

Even if more strains pop up, which will likely happen, all but one vaccine available is quadrivalent, meaning it targets two A strains and two B strains. It covers a lot.

Even if the shot ultimately ends up being a bit of a mismatch, as it did last year, there are still benefits to getting vaccinated against influenza.

For one, people who get vaccinated are less likely to get the flu, Fauci pointed out.

More importantly, even if you get vaccinated and still get sick, your illness will likely be less severe.

“Even if you do get sick, flu vaccination can reduce severity and duration of illnesses, and importantly, can help keep you out of the hospital,” Fauci said.

The flu vaccination shifts the odds in your favor, said Schaffner. It cuts your chances of being hospitalized, admitted to the ICU, and dying.

Plus, by getting vaccinated, you protect not only yourself but others, too.

“We also have a responsibility to protect the vulnerable around us, including young children, pregnant women, adults 65 years of age and older, and those with certain underlying chronic health conditions,” Fauci said.

A new survey from the NFID found that only 59 percent of people plan to get vaccinated against the flu this season, Schaffner said.

That’s a slight increase from last year, according to Schaffner, but we’re still a ways off from the level of vaccination health experts would like to see.

What’s more concerning, he added, is that 1 in 4 adults in the United States who have an underlying condition — such as diabetes, heart disease, or asthma — are not planning to get the flu shot.

According to panelist Dr. Federico Asch, a cardiologist and associate professor of medicine (cardiology) at Georgetown University, 93 percent of adults hospitalized with the flu had at least one underlying condition putting them at high risk for complications.

Additionally, over half of Black adults (62 percent) are hesitant about getting vaccinated, shedding light on the mistrust and racial disparities that exist in our healthcare system, according to the NFID survey.

The most common reason people don’t get the flu shot is because they don’t believe it works.

The flu shot might not be perfect, but it’s a good vaccine and will make a difference, according to Schaffner.

“It prevents many infections completely, and here’s a second point that people don’t get: If you get the vaccine and then somehow get the flu a month and a half later, your flu infection’s likely to be less severe,” he told Healthline.

If you’re worried about going into public to get the flu shot, Schaffner has a few tips.

Try going early in the morning, like 7 a.m., or late in the afternoon. Call your doctor and see if they have allocated windows for flu vaccinations.

And keep in mind that doctors’ offices and pharmacies are taking extra precautions and following the CDC’s safety guidelines to ensure everyone is safe.

If the majority of the population gets vaccinated against the flu, a lot of hospitalizations will be avoided and a lot of lives will be saved.

According to Fauci, the flu typically causes between 12,000 to 61,000 deaths, 140,000 to 810,000 severe cases requiring hospitalization, and between 9.3 to 45 million deaths a year.

Last year, 52 percent of people 6 months and older got vaccinated, according to Fauci, and the CDC estimates the flu vaccine prevented 7.5 million illnesses, 3.7 million medical visits, 105,000 flu hospitalizations, and 6,300 deaths.

By getting the flu shot now, thousands of hospitalizations and deaths can be prevented.

“Hello, what’s wrong with that?” Schaffner said.

Now’s the time to gear up for flu season, as cases are probably going to pick up any day now, putting the country in prime position for a “twindemic” in which both the flu and COVID-19 are swirling around.

Though the Southern Hemisphere had a light flu season, that doesn’t necessarily mean the Northern Hemisphere will too. Flu activity up north will depend on the vaccination rates and how strictly people adhere to precautions like physical distancing.

The good news is the flu shot seems to be a good match, and if more people get vaccinated, thousands of flu-related hospitalizations and deaths can be avoided.