We are reaching a critical moment in our continued fight against COVID-19. As summer turns to fall, many states are seeing increases in their number of cases. This could not come at a worse time; this rise in COVID cases coincides with the start of flu season. Over the past few months, Maryland has been doing progressively better in its fight against coronavirus. Although cases are still rising, the state actually recently reported its first day without a COVID death since March! While this is incredibly promising, the looming specter of the flu threatens to undo our progress. In order to keep our gains, it is imperative that every Marylander gets his or her flu shot.
Even before COVID, the seasonal flu was a serious and deadly virus in its own right. The CDC estimates that during the 2019-2020 flu season, there were between 400,000-700,000 hospitalizations and that 24,000-62,000 Americans lost their lives because of the flu.
While the flu is not as deadly as coronavirus, these numbers are still significant. If there truly is a second wave of COVID cases, the number of patients seeking care could overwhelm our city’s hospitals. As two emergency medicine physicians, this highly plausible scenario generates a significant amount of anxiety. Keeping as many people as possible out of the hospital during this time will be crucial to allow us to appropriately handle any potential influx of COVID patients.
Fortunately, with regards to the flu, there is a simple way to mitigate the risk: getting a flu shot. Flu shots work. They reduce the risk of you catching and spreading the flu. That’s not just our opinion: the CDC estimates that during the 2018-2019, flu shots prevented over 4 million cases of the flu. Preventing these cases had a very tangible effect on hospitals; during the same time period, flu shots kept approximately 58,000 Americans out of the hospital.
It is especially important that “at risk” populations receive a flu shot to optimize their chances of avoiding severe respiratory disease, especially in the time of COVID. These populations include-the elderly, individuals with chronic disease, individuals of lower socioeconomic status, and people of color. It is well documented that COVID-19 disproportionately affects patients with chronic disease, individuals above the age of 65, Latinos, Black and Brown communities and lower income populations. While these groups represent 55-60% of the US COVID cases, they represent over 90% of all COVID fatalities.
In our practice, we have seen the hapless manifestations of these staggering statistics. We have seen the asthmatic mother of 5 who lost her life after contracting COVID-19. We have seen the relatively healthy grandmother of 12 grandchildren rapidly decompensate and require life support to keep their heart beating. One of us, as a physician, has even seen his own family members of color suffer from this disease and ultimately pass away. Unfortunately, both of us
expect an increase in these tragic stories this fall season with the potential of COVID-19/Flu co-infections. But with vaccination we can potentially mitigate the concurrence.
There are very few reasons to not get a flu shot. The CDC recommends against the flu shot in the following situations: children under 6 months old, individuals with egg allergies, individuals who have experienced hives and/or breathing difficulty from previous flu vaccines.
The Health Department has a list of sites offering flu shots, often for no cost. Doctors' offices and many pharmacies will also have flu shots available.
It is important to note that although the flu vaccine may not completely remove the risk of contracting the flu, it can dramatically lessen the severity of the illness. Decreasing the extent of inflammation can be the difference between life and death in the upcoming fall season. It is also worth noting that the flu vaccine will NOT give you COVID-19.
Please, fellow Marylanders, take this seriously and get your flu shot this year. Flu shots work and getting one may be the difference between you staying healthy and you needing to come into the hospital. Every person who gets a flu shot, in addition to practicing proper preventative measure such as social distancing, is doing his or her part to try and mitigate the damage from COVID and the flu. We, two of the many healthcare workers on the frontline of this pandemic, cannot thank you enough. You getting the flu shot today will make our jobs easier this fall.
Drs. Gregory Jasani and Richard Jean-Louis are emergency medicine resident physicians at the University of Maryland Medical Center.