The Vaccine You Can Get Right Now!
After months of waiting, it seems we may be getting close to a COVID-19 vaccine. In fact, some of us have begun to be concerned it may be a little too close; i.e., that some safety corners may be cut in order to have a vaccine before the upcoming election.
But whether it’s a few weeks or a few months off, one thing is certain: there will not instantly be enough vaccine (or administration capacity) to simultaneously provide it to everyone. So, COVID-19 will still be with us even as the 2020-2021 flu season ramps up.
Happily, flu is one disease you can do something about. The irony is that even in this year of waiting impatiently for one vaccine, all too many of us will bypass getting the one readily available.
I’d urge you not to be among them. One reason: the health care system, already battered by COVID-19, is likely to be further challenged as flu season arrives before COVID-19 is brought under control. You could help reduce the burden on the people and the institutions composing that system simply by getting a flu shot.
Another reason: flu and coronavirus can have similar symptoms. If you’ve had a flu shot, that may help your health care provider as s/he works to identify the source of—and manage—your symptoms.
And third: a person can have both flu and COVID-19 at the same time, or in succession. But you definitely don’t want to. A flu shot reduces the risk of that unpleasant (and risky) scenario.
Since it takes about two to four weeks for the body to fully respond to the vaccine, now is the time to get a flu shot. Flu season usually is in full swing around January and February; you want your immune response to be running full throttle before then.
That two-to-four-week lag time, by the way, is often what lies behind those stories you hear about people “getting the worst case of flu I ever had right after I got that shot.” People sometimes conclude the flu resulted from the shot, and vow to avoid flu shots in the future. But the fact is, you can’t get flu from the flu shot: the virus strains used in the vaccine are dead.
There are a few other reasons why you may develop flu despite having received the vaccine. For one, each year’s vaccine is developed using the best-available information on what strains of flu will be circulating that flu season. Some years the strains used in the vaccine are a good match for the strains that show up; other years—not so much.
For another: if you’re older, your immune response to the vaccine may not be as robust as it is in a younger person. So, immunity may wane across time, leaving you increasingly susceptible to the virus as the season progresses. That possible reduced response is why there’s a higher-dose vaccine for people age 65 or older.
For the 2020-2021 season, the high-dose flu vaccine is a “quadrivalent” vaccine, effective against two strains of type A flu and two strains of type B. There also is a quadrivalent vaccine for anyone age six months or older; that one comes in differing strengths to accommodate a broad range of ages. And, there’s a quadrivalent nasal spray vaccine that might be an option for non-pregnant people age two through 49 years who do not have certain medical conditions or care for people who do.
The reason for the more-restrictive use of the nasal spray is that it contains live—though weakened—virus. Hence, it needs to be avoided by those who are immunosuppressed—due to either illness or treatment of an illness—and by those who care for people who are immunosuppressed. There also are other conditions, such as certain chronic diseases, which may argue against use of the nasal spray vaccine. People considering this form of the vaccine should discuss their options with their health care providers.
There are people—not many of them—who should not be vaccinated. This includes people who have had a severe, life-threatening reaction to a prior flu vaccine or to any of its ingredients. There also are people who should talk to their health care providers before getting a flu shot; this includes those with a less-than-life-threatening allergic reaction to eggs or to any ingredient in the flu shot, and those who have ever had Guillain-Barré Syndrome.
But the vast majority of us should get that vaccine. I’ll be getting mine the first week of October. In a year when so many things have felt out of control, I won’t miss the chance to have even just a little control over the flu virus.
Marj is an epidemiologist and wordsmith who has devoted her life to minutiae. She reports that yes, the devils are in the details.