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Don’t forget about getting your flu shot amid the COVID pandemic

Wearing masks, social distancing and washing hands more made influenza virtually nonexistent during the season from September 2020 to April 2021, according to the CDC.

It’s best to get flu shots by early November.
It’s best to get flu shots by early November.
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COVID-19 booster shots and Delta, Delta plus and Lambda variants are grabbing the headlines. But doctors urge that you also get vaccinated against the flu — and that your children get their flu shots, too.

It’s best to get the flu shot by early November — well in advance of flu season, which usually peaks in January, said Dr. Richard Novak, professor and head of the division of infectious diseases at University of Illinois Health.

Flu shots start becoming available in late August or early September and are widely available at clinics, drugstores, doctors’ offices and grocery store pharmacies.

If a COVID vaccine becomes available soon for children 11 and younger, Novak said to make sure to get the flu shot and the COVID vaccination at least two weeks apart.

“Theoretically, while the body is developing an immune response from one shot, a second shot might interfere with” the response to the other immunization if the two are given too closely together, Novak said.

Flu shots are available for children starting at 6 months old.

The first time a child younger than 9 gets a flu shot, a second shot — a booster— is required one month after the first shot, said Dr. Allison H. Bartlett, a pediatric infectious diseases doctor at Comer Children’s Hospital who is an associate professor of pediatric infectious diseases at the University of Chicago Medicine.

As with COVID, myths surround the flu shot — beliefs that have no scientific basis.

One is that getting a flu shot will give you the flu.

“That’s simply not possible,” Novak said. “You might get achy for a day. That’s a typical reaction to the vaccine, which is appropriate. It shows that your immune system is being turned on.”

If you get the real flu, “It feels more like you got hit by a truck,” Novak said. “The flu is a virus. It’s notorious for mutating rapidly. And, as in the 1918 flu pandemic, it can be deadly.”

It’s smart to keep your guard up by continuing to practice good hygiene even after getting a flu shot, doctors say. Continue to wear a mask in crowded indoor environments, frequently wash your hands, stay away from people who are sick, cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when you sneeze, and stay home when you are sick.

Dr. Allison Bartlett.
Dr. Allison Bartlett.
UChicago Medicine

Those anti-COVID measures rendered the flu virtually nonexistent during the season from Sept. 27, 2020, to April 24, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Flu cases totaled 2,038 during that period, compared with 38 million who got sick with the flu in the 2019-2020 season.

“I’d love to see a future, where, if someone doesn’t feel well, he or she would stay home,” Bartlett said, “and we just get used to wearing masks if we don’t feel well so we don’t make people around us sick.”

Taking children to their pediatrician’s or other healthcare provider to get a flu shot can be an excellent time to talk and get everyone ready for a COVID vaccine, including dispelling COVID myths, Bartlett said.

“We need to address the incredibly robust science behind COVID vaccines” to challenge people who remain skeptical about the vaccines’ newness and who wrongly believe that a coronavirus vaccine is more risky than their child getting COVID, with its potential to kill or cause serious long-term medical problems such as heart inflammation, she said.

Parents and guardians also should review CDC and school guidelines to ensure their children get other vaccinations they need to attend school, Bartlett and Novak said. Kids need to be vaccinated against chickenpox, diphtheria, hepatitis B, HPV, measles, meningitis, whooping cough, polio, pneumococcal disease, rotavirus, rubella and tetanus, among others.

Most parents take those immunizations seriously, while COVID shots have been politicized, Novak said.

“Social media has done a great disservice” in spreading COVID untruths, he said. “This distrust of science is very unusual. It’s all promoted by bad actors who have another agenda — to promote disinformation.”

Novak remembers the palpable fear of polio before that vaccine became widely available in the mid 1950s.

“It was devastating to see,” he said. “If it didn’t kill you, it could leave you crippled for life. It was obvious what had happened to a person. The vaccine was a lifesaver.”

Sandra Guy is a freelance writer.