Flu vaccine may offer some protection from COVID-19, early data suggests

October 21, 2020

    (WWJ) Getting a flu shot is especially important this year, health officials say.

    While the coronavirus pandemic continues, doctors are concerned that hospitals could be overwhelmed this winter by an influx of both flu and COVID-19 patients.

    But Dr. Matthew Sims, Director of Infectious Disease Research at Beaumont, Royal Oak, says getting your annual flu vaccine could be a good idea for another reason:

    "There's some data -- and it's early data, it's very preliminary and nobody's proven it yet to anybody's satisfaction -- but it's suggestive that if you get your flu vaccine you may actually get some protection against COVID," Sims told WWJ Health Reporter Dr. Deanna Lites.

    "And it's not that it prevents you from being infected or anything like that, it just seems like it might prevent you from having a more serious case."

    Sims said there are a lot of thoughts about why that might be, and doctors are still looking into it.

    "People think it sort of primes your immune system," Sims said. "And there's other vaccines that have been associate with that, mostly live vaccines. And at least one of these early studies saying that the nasal flu vaccine, which is live, might be better. But other studies have said any flu vaccine (could help)."

    Sims stressed that this research is in the very early stages. "We don't know any of it for sure," he added, "but it certainly wouldn't hurt.

    To maximize protection during the high-traffic months of November through March, Dr. Sims usually schedules his own flu shot in late October but given how complicated things are this season he’s already received it.

    The flu vaccine contains bits of three or four different strains of flu which scientists believe will most likely be circulating this season. Even if the vaccine is not an exact match, it triggers the body to produce an immune response that limits severity of illness.

    Sims said while getting a annual flu shot may or may not prevent you from getting the flu, many people who get the vaccine and end up with the flu anyway have a much more mild case.

    "People say: ‘I took it one year and I got the flu anyways’," Dr. Sims said. "But few people say, 'My loved one or I got the flu shot and then I was on a ventilator with pneumonia.' Even when it doesn't prevent the illness, it often lessens the symptoms and it’s still the best tool we have at containing the damage."

    Although last year's flu season was relatively mild, it still resulted in between 39 and 56 million cases, approximately 740,000 hospitalizations, and between 24,000 and 62,000 flu deaths, according to preliminary U.S Center for Disease Control and Prevention estimates.

    In the most severe recent flu season, 2017-2018, the CDC reported the flu vaccine only had an overall estimated effectiveness of 38% across three strains. Nonetheless, the CDC estimated that the imperfect vaccine still prevented 7.1 million illnesses, 3.7 million medical visits, 109,000 hospitalizations and 8,000 deaths.

    Fortunately, the U.S. appears to have an abundant supply of the vaccine this year. Flu shots are available through primary care doctors, at all Beaumont urgent care locations and various drug stores including CVS, Walgreen, as well as some Meijer and Kroger grocery stores.

    Work is ongoing in the U.S. and nationwide for a safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine.

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