With the first “cold” front of 2021 already in the books, local residents may be turning to thoughts of pumpkin spice lattes and sweater weather.
But health experts say that receiving this year’s influenza vaccination should be at the top of everyone’s to-do list, especially as COVID-19 continues to remain active in the Rio Grande Valley.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, receiving a flu shot in September or October offers the greatest protection against the flu, and annual vaccination is recommended for all individuals six months or older who do not have specific medical conditions that would be exacerbated by the vaccine.
Dr. Beverly Zavaleta, physician adviser at Valley Baptist Medical Center-Brownsville, said that getting vaccinated against the flu is a simple and proven way to protect against one of the world’s most common illnesses.
“When you get a flu shot, you reduce your risk of contracting influenza by 50 to 80 percent,” she said. “Additionally, if you’ve gotten the flu shot and catch the flu anyway, your illness will be milder. The flu shot gives you a great deal of protection and helps reduce the risk of the particularly dangerous combination of flu plus COVID co-infection, which we unfortunately saw during flu season last year.”
According to a CDC study, receiving an annual flu vaccine is still the best way to best protect against the flu. Researchers who analyzed the severe flu season of 2019-2020, found that flu vaccination prevented an estimated 7.52 million influenza illnesses, 3.69 million influenza-associated medical visits, 105,000 influenza-associated hospitalizations, and 6,300 influenza-associated deaths. Studies have also shown that being vaccinated against the flu can reduce the risk of major cardiovascular events such as heart attack and stroke, according to the CDC.
In addition to all of the normal risks associated with complications of flu infection, COVID-19 continues to pose an additional threat during this year’s flu season, said Dr. Christopher Romero, an internal medicine specialist at Valley Baptist Medical Center-Harlingen.
“Community transmission of COVID-19 continues to remain high in the Rio Grande Valley. While we have seen an improvement in hospitalizations, we are definitely not out of the woods and we remain at risk for resurgence,” he said. “Last flu season, we already saw patients who tested positive for both the flu and COVID-19. This is a horrible combination, and places patients at even higher risk for bad outcomes than with either infection alone.”
Romero said that not only can local residents protect themselves and their loved ones by receiving the flu shot, they can also ensure that the Valley’s healthcare system does not become overwhelmed during flu season as healthcare providers continue to battle COVID-19.
“While our summer 2021 surge was not as bad as 2020, Rio Grande Valley hospitals still have nearly 15 percent of their beds filled with COVID patients, “ he said. “If COVID surges again this fall at the same time that we see an increase in patients admitted with influenza, the health care system in the region could be pushed to the breaking point.”
According to the CDC, the flu has led to between 140,000 and 810,000 hospitalizations annually since 2010. Coupling that seasonal increase in hospitalizations with the impacts of COVID-19 could have dire consequences on the region’s healthcare system, Zavaleta said.
“If large numbers of people are infected with flu, COVID or both, we could have another surge in respiratory infections and hospitalizations that could be similar to what we’ve experienced over the past 18 months,” she said. “We can prevent this tragedy for our community by getting both our flu and our COVID vaccines.”
While receiving the annual flu shot is the best method to protect against the flu, there are additional methods to protect against the virus, according to the CDC. Because COVID-19 and the flu can spread similarly, there are ways to guard against the spread of both viruses:
⦁ Wash your hands regularly and thoroughly
⦁ Avoid touching your face or eyes except with a tissue
⦁ Avoid contact with others who are sick
⦁ Cover your mouth and nose when coughing or sneezing
⦁ Stay at home when you are sick
⦁ Consider wearing a mask when indoors in public spaces
For more information on ways to protect yourself from the flu, visit https://www.cdc.gov/flu/index.htm.