Check off the flu shot from your 2020 to-do list

With the world enmeshed in a global pandemic, getting this year’s seasonal flu shot may be more important than ever.

Experts agree the vaccine could help reduce the overall impact of contagious respiratory illnesses on the population during the overlapping flu season, thus decreasing the burden on an already-taxed health care system dealing with the COVID-19 crisis.

“Even though the morbidity and mortality of flu is much lower than COVID-19, it’s still a potentially serious disease, especially among the very young, the very old, and the immune-compromised like cancer survivors, diabetics, and those with autoimmune disease,” said Dr. Akram Sadaka, director of public health at Naval Health Clinic Patuxent River (NHCPR). “Furthermore, humans can acquire both flu and COVID-19 infections simultaneously, thereby the morbidity and mortality is multiplied by a factor greater than five. Unless there’s a valid contraindication to receive the flu vaccine, everyone should get it. Period.”

Because some of the symptoms of COVID-19 and flu are similar, it can be hard to tell the difference between them based on symptoms alone.

“Testing may be needed to help confirm which one is the culprit, and this is why we test for both in our clinic as a matter of Standards of Operating Procedure,” Sadaka noted. “Flu symptoms typically rise faster and last for a few days, while COVID-19 symptoms are more gradual and can last up to four to six weeks. Furthermore, loss of smell and/or taste is more common among COVID-19 patients; and one of the most important prognostic signs of COVID-19 is shortness of breath. Until COVID-19 is completely behind us, we recommend testing not only to rule it out, but to control it and get rid of it as well.”

Sadaka explained that, locally, the flu season begins toward the end of September and can last through the beginning of March, with peak season typically occurring in February. The vaccine is currently available in the community, but the Navy is receiving it later than usual this year; and although the clinic will be receiving a small batch shortly, it will be “prioritized for high risk individuals,” Sadaka noted.

TRICARE beneficiaries who wish to get the vaccine before it’s available at the clinic can use a TRICARE network participating pharmacy at no cost. Visit www.tricare.mil/flu for more information. Individuals should be sure to keep a record of their vaccines and share them with their primary care provider (PCP).

“Having the flu vaccine does not completely prevent you from having the flu, but it reduces the risk of the disease, along with its morbidity and mortality by a large measure,” Sadaka added. “Those who can’t take the vaccine for a specific medical reason should consult with their PCP to receive drugs that are currently available to combat flu when they either come down with it, or are exposed to it.”

And while Sadaka said people do not get flu from the flu shot, they can get some symptoms from it.

“Developing flu-like symptoms from the vaccine is not necessarily a bad sign; in fact, it means the vaccine has worked,” he added. “I would rather have those symptoms than the whole flu.”

In order to help prevent contracting the flu, Dr. Sadaka recommends strict personal hygiene and the avoidance of engaging in activities in crowded spaces.

“Likewise, physical distancing is essential for everyone, along with masking,” he stated. “Be safe. Stay home as much as possible, and enjoy your holidays.”