Annual flu season is here. While COVID-19 may be in the headlines, the flu should not be dismissed this year. In fact, it is likely that both flu and COVID-19 will continue to spread this fall and winter as holiday gatherings take place and people spend more time indoors. Two highly contagious and dangerous viruses spreading at once could devastate families, communities and the healthcare system, which is why it is more important than ever to take advantage of resources that can help minimize risks.
In the United States alone, the flu causes between 9 – 45 million illnesses, 140,000 – 810,000 hospitalizations and 12,000 – 61,000 deaths each year. The flu vaccine can reduce those numbers, but the CDC reports that fewer than half of Americans got flu vaccines last year, which resulted in at least 410,000 people who had to be hospitalized. If Americans don’t take extra effort to learn more about the differences between COVID-19 and seasonal flu, and if they don’t take action to safeguard their health, more people may unnecessarily wind up in hospitals and emergency rooms. This will overwhelm front-line healthcare workers who are already trying to manage a surge of COVID-19 patients.
It is critical for everyone to do their part to ensure a healthier and stronger America. It is not just about looking after our own health, but also taking precautions to keep those around us safe. This means watching out for people who are over the age of 65, who often experience changes in their immune defense, which puts them at greater risk of developing serious complications from flu. It also includes watching out for people with chronic health conditions, such as asthma, heart disease, diabetes and chronic kidney disease, who may have a harder time fighting flu and are more prone to developing serious or life-threatening complications.
Additionally, it is important to be aware of how the flu impacts individual communities. We know that COVID-19 and the flu impact Black and Latino communities at rates higher than others. There are many reasons for the disparities, most prevalent are health and racial justice inequities that lead to a disproportionate chronic disease burden and lower vaccinations rates. Also, urban communities are often negatively impacted because residents are in close contact with each other, share common spaces and are more likely to rapidly spread viruses.
We have the means to improve health and build stronger communities. CDC studies have demonstrated that flu vaccination can reduce the risk of flu illness by 40 – 60 percent. This means less risk of flu hospitalizations and flu-related death. And resources are not hard to find. Most health insurers cover the full cost of flu vaccination, and there are no-cost flu vaccines being distributed in every state by health departments and private organizations for people who are uninsured or underinsured. Flu vaccination is available via traditional injection, through fairly small sized needles and in the form of a nasal spray. There is even an alternative version of the flu vaccine for those who have egg allergies. Thanks to unprecedented efforts, this year’s flu vaccination is both safe and accessible.
Between historic flu trends and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, this flu season presents unique challenges. However, Americans are empowered to take control of their health. While we do not yet have a COVID-19 vaccine for protection, there is a vaccine to defend millions of Americans from the flu, and responsibility falls on each of us to keep ourselves and others safe.
To find no-cost flu resources, visit the CDC’s Vaccine Finder.