Flu Season 2020: Opportunity to Save Lives

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photo courtesy of metro creative

Every year has four seasons, but doctors know about a fifth one: Flu Season. Roughly speaking, it coincides with the Winter months every year, December through March.

But Flu Season is fickle. Most years February is the worst and January is the mildest for flu, but sometimes December and March are the bad ones. Influenza, “The flu,” is notoriously unpredictable. So is the virus that causes it. Some years it is more virulent, more dangerous, than others.

One Big Question

The big question every year is always the same. “Do you want the flu?” If not, medical science now has two answers. The first is almost guaranteed to work. Stay home from December through March—never leave your house and let nobody in.

The second answer is almost as good. It is also the only one left. Get a flu shot. Flu.gov estimates that flu shots prevented five million people from getting the flu last year.
But questions remain in the minds of some people about the flu vaccination. Jamestown Gazette readers are invited to see the FAQ section at the end of this article.

Covid vs Flu statsUnexpected Dangers

Decisions are often decided by balancing risks against benefits. In 2020, contracting the flu comes with new, potentially very dangerous risks.

Viruses like influenza are known to trade genetic material with other viruses and mutate into something new and unpredictable. This is especially true when the virus—flu in particular—passes so easily between humans and animals (including poultry, swine, and bats). As a result, the risk in catching flu changes every year.

The new COVID virus probably emerged from two other viruses mixing together in one infected animal, according to New Scientist Magazine for September 9, 2020, and it could mutate again the very same way in people.

Doctors are worrying about this new scenario: Influenza and COVID, two closely related coronaviruses, might merged into a new one, a Frankenvirus.

The risk-benefit tradeoff for the coming flu season has become more important than ever. It is possible to catch two viruses at once with a far more serious outcome. Since the COVID virus is about 10 times as deadly as the flu (see the text box on this page), the risk of a combination cannot be taken lightly.

With the flu’s higher risk this year, the benefit of a single flu shot appears higher than ever.

Available Now

The FDA’s Committee on flu vaccines meets every year to select the flu virus strains for the coming year’s vaccine. They met on March 4 this year to prepare for the 2020-2021 flu season. During that meeting, they reviewed the responses to 2019-2020 vaccines, and they searched for current flu virus types beginning to circulate.

This year’s vaccine has already been produced in millions of doses. Five virus types have been predicted to dominate this year’s flu season. Various vaccines containing four of those five types (called quadrivalent vaccines) have been available and in use since mid-August.

Many vaccines now also contain an ingredient that boosts a person’s immune system to produce more antibodies faster against the targeted virus types.

Anticipating the “double whammy” of flu season and COVID, the CDC has made $140 million available to immunization programs. The administration has also proposed $40 million more for flu planning and response.

Jamestown Gazette readers can learn more by visiting CDC-INFO, logging on to cdc.gov/flu/highrisk/index.htm, or calling 800-232-4636.

New School Rules

The State of New York now requires a standard list of immunizations for every student, pre-K through grade 12. Exceptions based on religious, philosophical, ethical, or related reasons are no longer allowed.

Parents are invited to read the Jamestown School Vaccination Policy at Jpsny.org/Page/2276 2019-2020, “Student Immunization Requirements,” and Jpsny.org/Page/7193, “Information for Parents on the Flu.”

Pennsylvania follows similar regulations, except that religious or other waivers are permitted, though if a child is exempt from immunizations, he or she may be removed from school during an outbreak. Learn more at health.pa.gov/topics/. Click on School Health.

Flu vaccines are not mandated in either state’s school statutes, but are highly recommended.

Follow the Money

An influenza vaccination, a “flu shot,” can cost as little as $0.00 (free!) up to $50 or more. The cost varies based on the provider—pharmacy, MD’s office, clinic, etc.—the type of vaccine, and insurance co-pays. Most health plans do cover flu shots and other vaccines, including employer plans, marketplace, Medicare and Medicaid plans. But it is wise to check first.

For comparison, regardless of the price of a flu shot, the cost of an actual case of the flu is bound to be orders of magnitude higher in medical costs, lost days at work or school, and general discomfort, if not worse.

For a general overview of the cost of a dose of flu vaccine to the provider, readers are invited to visit the CDC website. A 10-dose pack generally costs the provider between $10 and $20 for both pediatric and adult influenza vaccine. (https://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/programs/vfc/awardees/vaccine-management/price-list/index.html.)

Risk Factors

States and regions with a high proportion of uninsured citizens typically show a lower rate of immunizations and higher flu morbidity. Out of the 50 states, Pennsylvania ranks only six below the top performers at 65% vaccination rate and only 6% uninsured. New York is only three states lower, at 65% vaccination rate and 7% uninsured.

Small children, adults older than 65, and people with weakened immune systems and coexisting medical challenges are more susceptible to influenza. Smoking and excessive alcohol consumption are also key predisposing factors.

Cut the Risk

The only alternative to staying home from December through March or getting a flu shot is to do nothing. There is no guarantee that one will get it or will stay safe. However, the risk is not only to the one who chooses not to be immunized. It is also to that one’s family and friends, some of whom may be at even higher risk.

Immunity is not an individual choice. The Jamestown Gazette urges all of our readers to carefully consider getting a flu shot this year, and doing it as soon as possible.

FAQ

Is it safe to visit the doctor’s office during COVID-19?

The risk at a doctor’s office is much less than the risk at a supermarket or a crowded location,” according to Charles Chiu, MD, PhD, an infectious disease specialist at UC San Francisco. Health care workers take precautions at the doctor’s office. The benefits of getting a flu vaccine outweigh any risk of a single visit to the doctor’s office.

Won’t social distancing and wearing a mask lower the risk of catching the flu?

Maybe, but nothing is perfect. People get tired and may not always be careful. Colder weather and more indoor activities make flu transmission more likely. Only one episode of forgetting to mask can put you and others at risk.

Is the flu vaccine effective?

It varies from year to year because the flu virus mutates every year. But even if it is only 50 percent protective in preventing the flu, the vaccine may decrease the severity of the flu and prevent hospitalization. On a community level, the more people who are vaccinated, the fewer overall cases and severity will result.

Is the flu dangerous for healthy, young people?

People in all age groups die of influenza. Some years it is especially dangerous for children younger than five, and more so for those below age two. The flu can put adults out of work for up to two weeks with fever and fatigue. People also need the flu shot to protect more vulnerable friends, family members, and co-workers. A person can be contagious even before feeling sick. The contagious phase usually lasts from five to seven days.

Does the vaccine contain harmful chemicals?

No. Both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) data show beyond any doubt that flu vaccines are safe and effective. Flu vaccines do not cause flu and they do not cause any other conditions. The few, very old studies that seem to suggest otherwise have long ago been proven outdated and entirely wrong.

Is it true that CDC is predicting a milder flu season this year?

The Southern hemisphere, in places like Australia, experiences the flu earlier than the Northern hemisphere. This has been a relatively mild season, at least partially thanks to COVID-19 measures like social distancing and mask wearing. This suggest a milder season for the United States, but there are no guarantees. Colder winters in the north mean that people will be forced indoors where the risk of respiratory infections from close contacts is higher. Even with precautions, great caution is advised.

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Walt Pickut
Walt Pickut’s writing career began with publishing medical research in1971 while working at the Jersey City Medical Center and the NYU Hospital and School of Medicine. Walt holds board registries in respiratory care and sleep technology as well as bachelor's degrees in biology and communication, and a master's degrees in physiology from Fairleigh-Dickinson University in New Jersey, with additional graduate work in mass communication completed at SUNY Amherst. He currently teaches Presentational Speaking in the Houghton College PACE program at JCC and holds memberships in the Society of Professional Journalists and the American Society of Business Publication Editors. He lives in Jamestown with his wife Nancy, an MSW social worker, and has three children: Dr. Cait Lamberton in Pittsburgh, Bill Pickut, a marketing executive in Chicago, and Rev. Matt Pickut in Plymouth, IN.