A Q&A with a Vanderbilt pediatric nurse practitioner on how, why and when to get a flu shot this season.
Due to the double-whammy of the COVID-19 crisis and the onset of flu season, there are many unknowns in the months ahead.
“We are in unusual times — that is certain,” said Pam Bush, a nurse practitioner with Vanderbilt Pediatric Associates. “What we’ve done in the past for flu seasons is not going to be the same.”
In the past, perhaps you took your children to a flu vaccine clinic that isn’t available this year. Maybe you got your own flu shot through your employer, and that’s now also not an option. Or maybe you and yours didn’t get flu shots at all, and are wondering: Do we really need to get flu shots this year, since we’ll be wearing masks and socially distancing?
The short answer is yes — and the sooner the better.
This is particularly important for children, especially those under 5 (but over 6 months), as well as those with chronic conditions such as asthma, diabetes or heart disease. After months of messaging that children are not as vulnerable to COVID-19 complications, we must relearn the fact that young children are very much at risk to influenza-related complications. This season is no exception.
Below, we share our Q&A with Bush, who clears up common misconceptions on the flu vaccine, and helps us understand why it’s more important than ever to make sure we’ve been protected from the virus — and how to go about doing so.
After months of messaging that children are not as vulnerable to COVID-19 complications, we must relearn the fact that young children are very much at risk to influenza-related complications.
Why is now the time for flu vaccination?
Bush: Because it takes about two to three weeks to build up the antibodies needed to fight an infection. If you wait until December, you’re probably not going to get great coverage because you’re already going to be among the virus. That’s when you hear people say, “Well, I got my flu shot and the next day I got the flu.” Unfortunately, it’s not instantaneous — you do need to have those few weeks ahead of the thick of it to truly be protected.
What is the safest way to get our children vaccinated?
Bush: There are many new approaches to help parents can feel more comfortable. Some clinics are offering in-vehicle vaccinations, so you don’t have to leave your car. Some clinics are offering reduced-capacity, after-hours appointments specific to flu shots to limit exposure. And many pharmacies have ramped up their capacity, as well — that’s a quick and easy way to get a vaccination. Parents should call their providers to find out what sort of options they have.
A lot of people are probably thinking mask-wearing and social distancing is enough to protect them. Is that true?
Bush: Unfortunately, it’s not. We just don’t want to take any risks here, with so many unknowns. Consider this: If you catch the flu, and your immune system is down and you’re exposed to the coronavirus, what happens? That’s an unknown, and that’s where we could get into trouble.
Flu shots don’t protect 100 percent from the flu, right? So why is it so important to get one?
Bush: We hear that a lot: “Why should I get a flu shot if it’s not going to work?” On a good year — and this looks to be a good year, as we have a updated vaccination — you probably get 50 to 60 percent coverage. But here’s why it’s still important: If you’ve been vaccinated, you likely won’t get as ill as you would if you had not gotten the flu shot.
How does that work?
Bush: Because the flu virus mutates, the protein on the outer layers of the virus are closely related. Sometimes, it’s a close enough match that even if your body can’t fully fight it off, you’ve still got some protection, and you’re not going to have as strong of a reaction to the virus.
Is it true that you can get the flu from the vaccination?
Bush: Not at all. A lot of people have a preconceived notion about the flu vaccine and what it does, but the flu vaccine is not a live virus. They do make a live virus vaccination — it’s a nasal mist, but it’s a very low dose of the live virus. That one is not indicated for anyone with chronic illness, but for those of us with healthy immune systems, it’s not a problem at all.
What about Tamiflu? Since this medication exists, are we OK without a flu shot?
Bush: Tamiflu is an antiviral, not a treatment. It does not cure the flu, it just keeps the virus from reproducing — typically, it shortens the flu by one day. I always advise parents of risks: There can be neurological side effects, including seizure-like activity. It also needs to be administered as early as possible — and again, it typically only shortens the flu by one day.
What’s your bottom-line takeaway for parents this year?
Bush: The bottom line is this: Treat this year like you would any other year — that is to say, even though we are home more and social distancing, we still need to get our kids and ourselves vaccinated. And if you haven’t gotten a flu vaccine in the past, this is the year to start! Especially to protect those who are unable to get one — think of it as a way to protect someone else.