"What many don't understand, or grasp, quite yet, is the reality that the pandemic is long from over."

By Ellie Trice
October 15, 2020
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Emma McIntyre/Getty Images for WCRF

Every flu season is different. But each year, without fail, the flu leads to hundreds of thousands of hospitalizations, not to mention thousands, if not tens of thousands of deaths. Thanks to COVID-19, the 2020-2021 flu season is expected to be an especially rough one. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has already said that getting your flu shot this year is "more important than ever" to not only protect yourself and others from the flu but to also help reduce the strain on health care systems responding to COVID-19.

"What many don't understand, or grasp, quite yet, is the reality that [the pandemic] is long from over," Rita Wilson, one of the first celebrities to reveal they'd tested positive for COVID-19, tells Shape. "As Dr. Fauci repeatedly says, there is hope. However, we are still nowhere near out of the woods."

To help folks prioritize their flu shot this year, Wilson partnered with the American Nurses Association (ANA) for its new initiative, "The Race to 200M." The collaboration elevates the urgency of flu vaccination amid the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly for those who face the highest risk of flu complications: folks in marginalized communities, young children, older adults, folks with chronic health conditions (heart disease, diabetes, etc.), pregnant people, caretakers in nursing homes — the list goes on.

While some folks are more vulnerable than others to the flu (and, for that matter, COVID-19), it's still crucial that everyone gets their flu shot, says Debbie Hatmaker, Ph.D., R.N., the chief nursing officer of the ANA.

“If you are in contact with a person dealing with respiratory illness — even something as simple as the common cold — that drives down your immunity and drives up your anxiety because then it becomes even harder to tell what illness you're dealing with," explains Hatmaker. "Is it the flu, COVID-19, or seasonal allergies? It could be any or all of those.”

Granted, the flu shot isn't technically a foolproof way to avoid the flu. The vaccine's effectiveness varies year to year depending on which strain(s) will circulate most. Generally speaking, though, research from the CDC suggests the flu shot is usually between 40 and 60 percent effective — so you're definitely better off getting vaccinated than not. (More here: How Effective Is the Flu Shot?)

Plus, Hatmaker stresses, getting your flu shot doesn't just mean protecting yourself. It also means protecting others, including health care systems that will soon be overwhelmed with both flu hospitalizations and, potentially, more COVID-19 hospitalizations.

“There is real anxiety in the medical community about how high our case counts could get," says Hatmaker. "Imagine having a huge outbreak as we saw in New York, or in Phoenix, or in Texas, in the midst of flu cases inundating the hospitals as well. Use of ICUs, ventilators, doctors, and nurses are inevitably going to see increased demand, and there is concern among the medical community that we may not have the supply we need to meet it.”

FTR, it's okay (and totally normal) to be concerned about possible COVID-19 exposure when planning how (and where) you'll get your flu shot. "If you don’t have access to your doctor’s office, or you're worried about COVID-19 exposure, I urge you to check your local pharmacies,” says Wilson. "Many will come out to your car, mask on, and administer the vaccination, without you even having to leave the vehicle."

Plus, the CDC offers plenty of guidelines to help you protect yourself from COVID-19 when getting your flu shot, notes Wilson. “It’s really all about information and making sure you have access to it," she says.

"Most insurance will either offer [the flu vaccine] for free or at a very affordable price," adds Wilson. "If you don’t have health insurance, the CDC offers easy solutions to find affordable access." (See: Where Can You Get Free Flu Shots?)

Truth is, this is an unnerving time for everyone, says Hatmaker. Because COVID-19 is a new type of virus, "our guidance is shifting, our knowledge is shifting," she explains. "Right now, we know for sure that wearing a mask, social distancing, and washing your hands are the top three things to do to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 — but they’re also the same things essential to stop the flu. We must double down on them." (Related: Can the Flu Shot Protect You from Coronavirus?)

For Wilson, flu and COVID-19 prevention means putting her family first. Since the start of the pandemic, the actress says she's become increasingly aware of time's fleeting nature and what's most important to her in life. "There was one Christmas years ago when multiple people in my family were sick and we missed it," she shares. "We missed Christmas, and we missed one of my son’s birthdays. It was gone. We didn’t have a turkey dinner, we didn’t do anything. Those days are precious to me now, and I don’t want to miss out on any more time together."

But these prevention practices need to be done as a community that looks out for one another, not just ourselves, adds Hatmaker. "In the same way that you would care about somebody that’s riding in your car and tell them to please put on a seatbelt, say to someone, ‘Hey, please get a flu shot, because I love you and I want you to be around for a while.'"

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