Last winter, the COVID-19 pandemic was in full swing. Vaccines were not widely available, and medical professionals were concerned about the potential effects of a bad flu season, especially in communities where hospitals were already at capacity. Ironically, it was the pandemic that led to a relatively mild flu season because the safety measures that slowed the spread of COVID-19 also slowed the spread of the flu. People were limiting contact with each other, wearing masks, and washing their hands frequently. Most schools were not offering in-person instruction and many companies asked employees to work from home.
This winter will be considerably different. Schools and workplaces have mostly returned to business as usual with everyone on-site, restaurants are allowed to provide indoor dining, and people have relaxed their guard after getting vaccinated. As the colder weather brings people indoors, we become more susceptible to viruses that thrive on close contact for transmission, including influenza—the virus that causes the flu.
Although news outlets continue to focus on COVID-19-related illnesses and deaths, viruses such as influenza are also dangerous. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that since 2010, influenza has resulted in more than 9 million illnesses each year in the United States alone. It also suggests that complications from the flu have put between 140,000 and 810,000 Americans in the hospital and killed between 12,000 and 61,000 people in the U.S. annually.
For this reason, every year I encourage patients to get vaccinated against influenza. The vaccine is safe and effective. It not only helps prevent people from experiencing the miserable fever, body aches, coughing, sneezing, headache and fatigue that are among the flu’s many symptoms; it also helps prevent people from spreading the flu to others who are too vulnerable to fight the virus: the young, the old, and people who have compromised immune systems—as well as those battling a bad case of COVID.
Some people wonder whether it is safe to get the flu shot and the COVID vaccine at the same time—or whether they should get a COVID booster. It is safe to get the flu and COVID vaccines together, and if you qualify for a booster, it is fine to get the booster and the flu shot at the same time.
To be clear, vaccines do not guarantee you will not get sick. They do, however, make it much less likely that you will suffer severe illness or death. The hard truth is that every time we take medicine, there are risks and benefits. The good news is that the Food and Drug Administration requires extensive trials with the best science available at the time to assure that the benefits of a medication outweigh the risks.
As someone who works in medicine, I trust science. That does not mean I have a list of scientific facts I hold onto forever. It means I trust the scientific process that continually seeks more and better information, and revises theories and practices based on the latest findings. Science isn’t perfect, but it’s a great way to test what works and what doesn’t. Scientists change their minds when new data comes to light. Changing your opinion doesn’t mean you’re weak and wishy-washy; it means you’re smart and adaptable. Why would anyone hold onto outdated information?
When we do our own research, it is hard to overcome something called confirmation bias. Consciously or subconsciously, we seek information that confirms the opinions we already hold. One way to try to overcome this is to be skeptical of information we naturally gravitate toward. Think about the source of the information and who stands to gain from the information. You may also consider seeking out people who have dedicated their professional lives to understanding the topic you’re interested in rather than making decisions based on rumor or hearsay.
Especially when it comes to health, I encourage people to make decisions based on facts rather than Facebook posts. If you have concerns, talk to your healthcare provider. They can give you accurate information about the risks and benefits. In the case of both flu vaccines and COVID vaccines, I assure you the risks are tiny compared to the benefits.
Justin Ebert, PA-C, is the medical director at MCHC Health Centers, a community-based and patient-directed organization that serves Mendocino and Lake Counties, providing comprehensive primary healthcare services as well as supportive services such as education and translation that promote access to healthcare. Learn more at mchcinc.org.