Health care professionals emphasize importance of flu vaccine ahead of potentially severe flu season

Nearly half of Americans are unsure or do not plan to get vaccinated against the flu this year, despite a potentially worse than average flu season.

Forty-four percent of respondents expressed hesitancy about the flu vaccine in a newly released survey of more than 1,000 Americans from the National Foundation of Infectious Diseases. The survey noted that, “of concern, nearly one in four (23%) who are at higher risk for flu-related complications said they were not planning to get vaccinated this season.” A similar NFID survey from 2020 found 59% of respondents said they planned to be vaccinated against the flu and 15% said they were unsure.

Those who expressed hesitancy questioned the effectiveness of flu vaccines or potential side effects, or claimed they never get the flu or it’s not a serious illness. 

“Everybody is at risk of getting the flu,” said Dr. Lloyd Simon, senior vice president of medical affairs at Stony Brook Eastern Long Island Hospital. “A person who may get the flu and have minimal symptoms, so they don’t really feel like they’re very ill, can still spread it to people who are at much more risk of getting ill, whether they’re young people or people who are immunocompromised or the elderly.”

He pointed out that in a normal year, there are “a significant number of deaths from influenza.”

“If people are more hesitant than normal about getting flu vaccines, you know they feel they’ve had enough vaccines already this year because of COVID vaccines, et cetera, then we are putting our population at increased risk if people are inadequately vaccinated,” he said. 

Forty-eight percent of survey respondents indicated they plan to get vaccinated against the flu and 61% agreed that the flu vaccine is the best way to prevent flu-related deaths and hospitalizations.

Times Review Media Group interviewed Dr. Simon about the importance of the flu vaccine. 

Q: Why is it important for people to get their flu shots this year, especially after historically low flu rates last year?

A: That’s actually what makes it more important to get the flu shot this year. Last year we were pretty sure that the historically low rate was due to all the precautions we were taking for COVID — the social distancing, the mask-wearing. As COVID precautions have fallen off … we’re concerned there’s going to be much more influenza around this year, and because so few people got it last year, that people may have less natural immunity this year also. The concern is that it could be a worse flu season than average, even though last year was a historically low flu season. 

Q: How effective is the flu vaccine?

A: We don’t ever know ahead of time. Flu vaccine is not nearly as effective as the COVID vaccine is, but we do know that if people get the flu even though they’ve been vaccinated, that they tend to get a milder case of the flu and they may recover more quickly.

Q: Are there side effects people should worry about?

A: I wouldn’t anticipate any more side effects from the flu vaccine than we’ve ever seen. The most common side effect is a sore arm, people may have some mild viral symptoms for usually less than 24 hours.

Q: Is it okay for people to get their flu vaccine even as they get their COVID-19 vaccination or booster shot?

A: Yes it is. Last year, there were specific exclusions to not do that, but that was based on the lack of knowledge that we had at the time. The official recommendation now is that you can get both shots at the same time … Most common would probably be to give one shot in one arm and one shot in another.

Q: Should people be worried about getting the flu and COVID at the same time?

A: That should be something people are aware can happen. They shouldn’t be worried unless their worry is something that induces them to take the proper precautions, which is making sure you’re vaccinated against both. Both of those vaccines should be readily available.

Dr. Simon emphasized that everybody over the age of six months should be vaccinated against the flu every year. Flu vaccines are widely available at local CVS and Walgreens locations.