Flu vaccines are more important than ever this year, and area medical experts are recommending vigilance to help residents stay healthy.
Influenza season starts around October and runs through March, said Dr. Jennifer Cunningham, a family physician and physician lead at Valley Health’s clinics in New Market and Mount Jackson.
Though not associated with the COVID-19 virus, the flu is especially problematic this year because it weakens the immune system in people who contract it, which can make them more susceptible to catching the coronavirus.
Influenza and COVID-19 have many of the same symptoms, are transmitted in the same way and can be prevented in the same way, Cunningham said.
However, there are some differences, she said.
Flu poses a great threat to young children as much as older adults, as opposed to COVID-19, which so far has been more deadly to adults with weakened immune systems.
Symptoms of flu are not asymptomatic, as with some coronavirus patients, Cunningham said. The flu also has a vaccine that is updated each year to protect against the most likely strains to affect the general public.
Valley Health has three upcoming drive-thru flu vaccination dates at Shenandoah Memorial Hospital’s north entrance, Door 24, in Woodstock:
• 8-11 a.m. today
• 3-7 p.m. Wednesday
• 8-11 a.m. Oct. 3
The Lord Fairfax Health District, which covers Winchester and the counties of Clarke, Frederick, Warren, Page and Shenandoah has been setting up outdoor tents with “Get your flu shot” signs on most weekdays around the region with no appointment necessary, Lord Fairfax Health District Director Dr. Colin Greene wrote in a recent column for the Northern Virginia Daily.
Area pharmacies and health care providers are also offering the flu vaccine, Cunningham said.
For the safety of health care providers and the community in general, the Virginia Department of Health and Valley Health ask those receiving a flu shot to wear appropriate face coverings.
Adults 18 and older are invited to receive a flu shot at the clinics. The cost is $25 with cash or check.
Insurance plans usually cover the cost of a flu shot to those who bring along their insurance card, Valley Health reports at its website, valleyhealthlink.com/patients-visitors/cold-flu-season-precautions.
October is the best time to get the flu vaccine, Cunningham said, since it's early enough for the shot to take effect before flu season ramps up but late enough so its protection will last through the winter.
“A lot of my patients don’t get flu shots; they don’t see the need for it,” Cunningham said.
To those who usually forego the vaccine and coincidentally manage not to get the flu, she said it can be easy to assume they won’t need the vaccine this year either. But Cunningham disagrees.
“This is a different kind of year,” she said.
Though they might not have a greater chance of getting the flu without the vaccine, she said any adult who gets the flu has a greater chance of getting COVID-19.
Overwhelming the health-care system with flu and coronavirus patients is another main concern during the 2020-21 flu season, she said.
“My 40 years in health care, this is the first time I’ve been genuinely … anxious of what’s going to happen this season,” she said.
“[It’s] another reason to encourage people to get their vaccination,” she said.
The flu vaccine doesn't always work. People might still get the flu, she said, but their symptoms will be less severe and the illness might also be shorter.
Except for people with allergies to the vaccine's ingredients (such as egg allergies), she said, “Anyone 6 months and older should be getting their flu vaccine.”