3 Misconceptions About the Flu Shot and COVID-19

Is a flu shot really necessary this year? Experts say yes. Here are the facts.

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Now that it’s October, getting a flu shot should be on the top of your to-do list, if you haven’t gotten one already. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends getting the vaccine by the end of October, in order to ensure that you’re protected against the flu before the season picks up steam.

Ideally, with very few exceptions, everyone over the age of 6 months would get a flu shot. And getting your shot is “more important this year than ever,” says Edward Belongia, MD, an infectious disease epidemiologist at the Marshfield Clinic Research Institute in Wisconsin. On top of flu season, SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, will still be circulating in communities across the country.

You might be hesitating more than you normally would. In one recent survey, among people who said they did not plan to or were unsure about whether they would get a flu shot, about 1 in 6 said they were concerned about potentially being exposed to COVID-19 while getting vaccinated against the flu.

Here, three common misconceptions about this year’s flu shot and the pandemic, and the facts you really need to know.

Misconception: The Flu Shot Will Make You More Vulnerable to COVID-19

Reality: There’s no evidence that getting a flu shot will increase your susceptibility to COVID-19.

You might have heard about a study from the journal Vaccine, published online last year, that suggested that the flu shot might be linked to an increased risk of seasonal coronaviruses. Those are the kinds that cause some common colds.

But there are a number of reasons why this study, which looked only at data from the 2017-2018 flu season, shouldn’t put you off the flu shot. For one thing, Belongia says, “seasonal coronaviruses are very, very different from SARS-CoV-2.” So it’s not possible to draw conclusions about COVID-19 from data on seasonal coronavirus. And the link they did find may have been the result of some issues with the study’s methodology, Belongia says.

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To address this concern, last month a team of researchers in Canada published a new study examining data from six flu seasons (instead of just one) and came to a different conclusion, finding no association between having the flu shot and catching a seasonal coronavirus.

Even the author of the first study wrote a follow-up letter to the editor, clarifying that his results can’t be applied to COVID-19. “The results of this study cannot and should not be interpreted to represent any sort of relationship or association of influenza vaccination receipt and COVID-19 illness,” he wrote.

Some early, unpublished research has even suggested that getting a flu shot may be linked with a reduced risk of death from COVID-19. But those data are still preliminary, and more studies are needed to confirm this finding.

Misconception: A Flu Shot Isn’t Needed, Thanks to Masks and Social Distancing

Reality: Australia and several other Southern hemisphere countries experienced very low levels of flu over their seasons this year. That’s attributable, in part, to the strong COVID-19 mitigation measures that were put into place, says Jennifer Nayak, MD, associate professor of pediatrics, microbiology, and immunology at the University of Rochester Medical Center.

In March and April, about the time that the Southern Hemisphere’s flu season usually begins, regional and country-wide lockdowns went into effect in countries like Chile, South Africa, and Australia, some of the same countries that have seen minimal flu activity. “People were staying at home. Children weren't going to school. Parents weren't going to work,” Nayak says.

But in the U.S. right now, many of those conditions no longer apply. “Things like mask wearing and social distancing are not instituted perfectly in this country,” Nayak says. So while we can hope to have a mild flu season this winter, there’s no guarantee.

The possibility of COVID-19 and flu circulating at the same time makes it even more important to get your flu shot—to protect yourself from at least one of those two diseases, which one person can actually get at the same time.

And reducing your risk of the flu not only cuts your likelihood of getting sick or severely ill from flu but also helps keep the healthcare system from being overwhelmed by two epidemics at once.

Misconception: Going Out to Get a Flu Shot Risks Exposing You to COVID-19

Reality: With many workplaces not offering flu shots and some people delaying checkups, it might take a little more planning than usual to get your flu shot. But it doesn’t have to be unsafe.

To guard against the spread of COVID-19, most healthcare centers are “implementing a tremendous amount of protective measures,” says Michael Phillips, MD, chief healthcare epidemiologist at NYU Langone Health. At NYU, for example, “We screen everybody before they come in to identify the people who are potentially ill.” On site, he says, anyone with symptoms is kept separate from people coming in who don’t have symptoms. On top of that, masks are required at all times for both staff and patients.

Nayak says that at the University of Rochester, “the mitigation measures are very strictly enforced, and you don't have people not following them.” Inside a hospital or clinic, where staff are trained in infection control, you shouldn’t encounter anyone without a mask, the way you might at a grocery store.

Call ahead to wherever you’re planning on getting your flu shot to find out what its procedures are for giving flu shots. Some clinics may be offering special hours for flu shots, or even drive-thru or outdoor vaccinations. If you’re headed to a pharmacy, check whether it offers appointments for flu shots so that you avoid any need to wait around. Your primary care provider may also give you an option to schedule a flu shot and be in and out quickly.

Catherine Roberts

As a science journalist, my goal is to empower consumers to make informed decisions about health products, practices, and treatments. I aim to investigate what works, what doesn't, and what may be causing actual harm when it comes to people's health. As a civilian, my passions include science fiction, running, Queens, and my cat. Follow me on Twitter: @catharob