Since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, flu season has been a threat looming over healthcare organizations worldwide. Public health officials have long feared that managing two concurrent infection outbreaks would overwhelm healthcare systems already feeling the strain of managing the ebb and flow of COVID-19 patients entering emergency rooms worldwide.
As a result, doctors have advised the public that the best course of action to limit the possibility of a co-infection event is getting the flu shot. In an interview with CTV, the co-chair of the Canadian Association of Emergency Physicians, Dr. Atul Kapur, said that "the importance of getting a flu shot is higher than ever [this year]...if you've never gotten one before, this is the year to make sure you get your flu shot."
In preparation for increased demand, the Ontario government ordered 16% more doses of the influenza vaccine than last year, totalling over five million units. The government is expected to order even more, as flu season begins rolling into the Northern hemisphere.
Messaging from healthcare professionals around the world emphasizing the importance of getting immunized against the flu this year may be paying off: the Southern hemisphere, which typically experiences the seasonal flu before Canada, has seen record low rates of influenza. In 2019 Australia recorded 70,071 cases of the flu, compared to only 93 cases recorded in 2020 by the end of their flu season in July. Similar trends were also noted in South Africa, Argentina, Chile, and New Zealand. In all of these countries, people flocked to get immunized against the seasonal flu in higher numbers than ever before; in Australia alone, there was a 150% increase in flu vaccinations. Widespread immunization was instrumental in keeping the flu at bay, and limiting the alarming possibility of a combined influenza-COVID season.
The successful abatement of a harsh flu season was also due in part to social distancing measures enacted to halt the spread of the novel coronavirus. In Canada, in the 2019-20 flu season stopped suddenly in mid-March with the advent of public health rules intended to halt the spread of the novel coronavirus. Thus, by adhering to social distancing measures you are both helping stop the spread of COVID-19 and preventing a concurrent flu season from manifesting.
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How Do Flu Shots Work?
There's a lot of misinformation online about the safety and effectiveness of the flu shot. However, Canadian public health officials are certain on three things: the shot is safe, most people have no side effects as a result of being immunized, and severe reactions to the flu vaccine are incredibly rare.
Vaccines work by introducing weakened versions of a germ to your body, in order to train your immune system to recognize the germ as foreign, and in response, remember how to create antibodies to fight it. How effective the flu shot is changes year to year depending on how accurately scientists are able to match their vaccine to real viruses circulating in the population; however, even with an imperfect match, the flu shot can still reduce the severity of flu-induced complications.
It is imperative to get immunized against seasonal influenza, especially in order to protect high-risk people from experiencing severe reactions to a virus. Children under the age of six months are too young to get the flu shot; kids under the age of five have developing immune systems which are less equipped to fight off viruses; folks over the age of 65, pregnant people, and those with underlying conditions all have weakened immune systems which are susceptible to severe cases of the flu and flu-related complications. By getting vaccinated, you reduce the risk of transmitting what could be a mild case of the flu to a vulnerable member of your community, who could go on to develop a much more serious condition.
If you want to ensure that your flu shot is as effective as possible, experts recommend being fully rested at the time of vaccination. According to sleep specialist Matthew Walker via CTV, not sleeping enough for the week prior to getting the flu shot could lead to "the production of less than 50% of the normal antibody response." This could result in a reduction of the vaccine's effectiveness.
Image Source: Tbel Abuseridze via Unsplash.
Where Can I Get a Flu Shot?
In Ontario, the flu shot is free for anyone older than 6 months old, who is living, working, or attending school in the province. You can get a free flu shot without a referral, from your doctor, some public health units, and participating pharmacies — with the exception of children under the age of five, who cannot get immunized at pharmacies.
Because of the increased demand for flu shots this fall, some pharmacies are seeing temporary shortages of vaccines in-between restocks. To reduce the risk of showing up to a pharmacy in between re-stocks, refer to this handy list of search engines compiled by toronto.ca that show which pharmacies in your area are currently offering the flu shot. To be certain, always call ahead to confirm your allotted immunization time, and to clarify the precautions being taken at the site to prevent COVID-19 transmission.
What Happens If I Get The Flu?
Of course, even if you take all of the proper precautions, there's still the slim chance that you could contract the flu. According to Ontario health, the key symptoms that indicate you may have caught the flu are "fever, chills, cough, runny eyes, stuffy nose, sore throat, headache, muscle aches, extreme weakness and tiredness, [and] loss of appetite."
In the event that you develop flu symptoms, be sure to contact your primary care physician for an appropriate diagnostic test to confirm that what you are experiencing is, indeed, the flu, and not COVID-19. Until then, drink plenty of fluid, take warm baths, and avoid consuming alcohol, coffee, and cigarettes. Most importantly, if you begin feeling sick, stay at home and rest.