Health Experts: Flu vaccinations critical as COVID-19 continues into flu season

Staff pharmacist Thomas A. Garza checks a premeasured vial of the influenza vaccine intended for those over the age of 65 Friday before a flu shot appointment at The Medicine Shoppe Pharmacy in San Benito.(Denise Cathey/The Brownsville Herald)

With the first “cold” front of 2020 already in the books, local residents may be turning to thoughts of pumpkin spice lattes and sweater weather.

But health experts say that receiving this year’s influenza vaccination should be at the top of everyone’s to-do list, especially as COVID-19 continues to remain active in the Rio Grande Valley.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, receiving a flu shot in September or October offers the greatest protection against the flu, and annual vaccination is recommended for all individuals six months or older who do not have specific medical conditions that would be exacerbated by the vaccine.

Dr. Beverly Zavaleta, physician adviser at Valley Baptist Medical Center-Brownsville, said that getting vaccinated against the flu is a simple and proven way to protect against one of the world’s most common illnesses.

“When you get a flu shot, you reduce your risk of contracting influenza by 50 to 80 percent,” she said.“Additionally, if you’ve gotten the flu shot and catch the flu anyway, your illness will be milder. The flu shot gives you a great deal of protection and helps reduce the risk of the particularly dangerous combination of flu plus COVID co-infection, which we have already seen in some patients.”

According to a CDC study, receiving an annual flu vaccine is still the best way to best protect against the flu. In a study analyzing the severe flu season of 2017-2018, flu vaccination prevented an estimated 6.2 million influenza illnesses, 3.2 million influenza-associated medical visits, 91,000 influenza-associated hospitalizations, and 5,700 influenza-associated deaths. The CDC also reported that flu vaccine reduced children’s risk of flu-related pediatric intensive care unit admission by 74 percent. It has also been shown that being vaccinated can even reduce the risk for major cardiac events in those patients at highest risk for heart problems.

In addition to all of the normal risks associated with complications of flu infection, COVID-19 poses an additional threat during this year’s flu season, said Dr. Christopher Romero, physician adviser and internal medicine specialist at Valley Baptist Medical Center-Harlingen.

“Cameron County currently ranks fifth in the state for the number of active COVID-19 cases. While we have seen an improvement in hospitalizations, we are definitely not out of the woods and at risk for resurgence,” he said. “Earlier this year we have already seen patients who have tested positive for both the flu and COVID-19. This is a horrible combination, and places patients at even higher risk for bad outcomes than with either infection alone.”

Romero said that not only can local residents protect themselves and their loved ones by receiving the flu shot, they can also ensure that the Valley’s healthcare system does not become overwhelmed during flu season as healthcare providers continue to battle COVID-19.

“Hospitals across the region are in the process of recovering from the tremendous surge in COVID cases that was experienced in the Rio Grande Valley this summer,” he said. “If this were to happen again at the same time that we see an increase in patients admitted from the flu, the health care system in the region could be pushed to the breaking point.”

According to the CDC, the flu has led to between 140,000 and 810,000 hospitalizations annually since 2010. Coupling that seasonal increase in hospitalizations with the impacts of COVID-19 could have dire consequences on the region’s healthcare system, Zavaleta said.

“If large numbers of people are infected with flu, COVID or both, we could have another surge in respiratory infections and hospitalizations that is even larger than what we had over the summer,” she said.“This would be tragic for our community. We all need to try to prevent more infection and premature death from COVID.”

While receiving the annual flu shot is a proven means to protect against the flu, there are additional methods to protect against the virus, according to the CDC. Because COVID-19 and the flu can spread similarly, there are ways to guard against the spread of both viruses, including:

  • Avoiding close contact with others, especially those who are sick
  • Cover your mouth and nose when coughing or sneezing
  • Wash your hands regularly and thoroughly
  • Avoid touching your face, especially your eyes, nose, and mouth
  • Stay at home when you are sick

For more information on ways to protect yourself from the flu, visit https://www.cdc.gov/flu/index.htm.