Flu season is just around the corner. With the coronavirus pandemic still present in our daily lives, it is perhaps more important than ever to get the flu shot, both for your own health and for the health of all Mainers.
There are still unknowns as to how the annual flu will interact with the coronavirus. That has public health professionals concerned not only about the strain on Maine’s health care system from a confluence of the flu and a pandemic, but also about the potential to have both at the same time.
“Getting a flu vaccine this fall will be more important than ever,” said Anna Krueger, a Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention epidemiologist. “It is possible to have the flu, as well as other respiratory illnesses, and COVID-19 at the same time. Flu viruses and the virus that causes COVID-19 both infect the lungs, so it is possible that an infection from flu could reduce your body’s ability to respond to a COVID-19 infection, though experts are still studying this.”
Add that to the fact that flu season in general can be bad in Maine, as cold weather keeps people in indoor spaces with their windows closed.
This year, the use of masks might help stem the spread of the flu somewhat, but should not be considered a fail-safe.
“There is strong evidence that masks and face coverings help prevent spread of COVID-19, suggesting it would also help prevent the spread of flu,” Krueger said. “Even if masking is effective against the spread of flu, it is not always possible to wear a mask, so having that extra protection from a vaccine is key.”
The Maine CDC recommends that all people 6 months and older get a yearly flu vaccine. The question for Mainers, though, is when to get the flu shot in order for it to be most effective.
The short answer is whenever you think of it, but definitely before the end of October, when influenza activity often begins to increase.
“We encourage people to start getting vaccines right now,” Hamilton said. “Getting it now will still protect you into March 2021. If they’re thinking of it and they’re at the pharmacy and the timing is right I would just go for it and get it out of the way.”
Krueger said that the peak of flu season can vary year to year and is typically between December and February, although activity can last as late as May.
“It is believed that getting vaccinated too early [like] July or August may not protect certain people, including older people, by the end of flu season,” Krueger added.
Hamilton said that health care organizations and pharmacies throughout the state already have the flu vaccine available, so whenever you have the chance, just go for it.
“There’s enough availability around that I wouldn’t worry about the rush,” Hamilton said. “You could get it at your doctor’s or call your pharmacy and get it there. People shouldn’t be standing in line or waiting, it should be whatever’s convenient for you when it works for you.”
Kristen Coaty, a Maine CDC public health adviser, said that the Maine Immunization Program provides free routine vaccines, including the flu vaccine, to children 19 and younger, residing in Maine through the universal vaccination program. As such, children can get the free vaccine through their medical provider, their local Department of Health and Human Services office or a community clinic.
This year, the Maine Immunization Program will also be receiving a limited amount of free adult flu doses from the federal CDC. If a provider office does not offer free flu vaccines to adults, you can go to your local DHHS office or a community flu vaccination clinic, which only charges a small administrative fee to cover the cost of dispensing the vaccine.
There are a few different types of influenza vaccines designed for different people, including a higher dose for adults age 65 and older. Coaty said that if patients have questions about which flu vaccine is best for them, they should have a discussion with their doctor.
A nasal spray as opposed to an injection is also an option.
“That’s a nice alternative particularly for children that get really anxious about getting a shot,” Hamilton said.