Richard Villata, 63, has gotten a flu shot every year since he’s been a member of the military reserve, which totals more than two decades. But this year was the first time he got one in his car. On Tuesday he pulled up to the Salt Lake City veterans hospital in his 1998 Jeep Grand Cherokee and stuck his left arm out the window. A nurse wearing a mask administered the vaccine.

The George E. Wahlen Department of Veteran Affairs Medical Center in Salt Lake City is one of several locations in Utah currently offering drive-thru flu shot clinics. It’s a scene playing out across the nation as fall moves toward winter.

The flu shot is always recommended, but this year it’s more important than ever to get one, said Valerie Lambiase, a nurse and certified infection control and prevention specialist at the Salt Lake City VA hospital.

Getting a flu shot will decrease a person’s risk of getting a co-infection of both the flu and COVID-19, said Lambiase. It will also limit confusion over the two viral infections, which have similar symptoms, and free up hospital beds to treat patients with COVID-19, which does not yet have a publicly available vaccine.

Villata, a flight surgeon in the Air Force with a specialty in occupational and aerospace medicine, said that some years the flu shot is more effective than others, but that’s not a reason to avoid getting one. In a typical year, the vaccine reduces a person’s risk of getting the flu by 40-60%, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Anti-vaxxers often use these numbers to say the flu shot is ineffective, he said. But even when efficacy rates are low, the vaccine saves lives. And there’s very little risk to getting one, said Villata.

How is the flu vaccine going to help with COVID-19?

Coughing, fatigue, fever, chills, aches, pains, nausea and shortness of breath. These are all potential symptoms of both COVID-19 and influenza, said Mark Greenwood, the medical director for family medicine with the Intermountain Medical Group. The biggest differentiator between the two illnesses is the loss of taste and sense of smell, which only presents in COVID-19 cases, he said.

Getting vaccinated for the flu will make it easier to rule out that illness and diagnose COVID-19, said Greenwood.

Secondly, it is possible for people to get infected with both the flu and coronavirus at the same time, a dangerous combination, said Greenwood. A co-infection could increase a person’s chances of pneumonia, difficulty breathing, hospitalization and death.

Shanelle Brin, RN nurse resident, shows a senior dose of the flu shot at a drive-thru flu vaccine clinic for veterans at the George E. Wahlen Department of Veteran Affairs Medical Center in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2020. The clinic is available for veterans Monday to Friday from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

In addition to the more than 215,000 deaths that have been caused by the coronavirus this year, the CDC estimates that between 12,000 and 61,000 deaths have resulted annually from the flu since 2010.

People should think of getting the flu vaccine like “community service,” similar to wearing a mask and social distancing, Greenwood said.

“You’re helping yourself be safer, but you’re also helping the community be safer, because you’re less likely to transmit influenza,” said Greenwood.

Preventing the flu will also relieve the burden on the health care system and free up capacity to take care of COVID patients, he added.

Intermountain has expanded its capacity to give flu shots this year by adding additional clinics, and Greenwood said that in his own practice, he has seen willingness to get the shot nearly double. According to data from the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, 48.7% of Utah adults got the flu vaccine during the 2019-2020 flu season.

“We’ve got to do better,” Greenwood said.

Does the flu shot really work?

The CDC reports that “flu vaccination reduces the risk of flu illness by between 40% and 60% among the overall population during seasons when most circulating flu viruses are well-matched to the flu vaccine.”

But some years, the efficacy rate has been much lower. The overall effectiveness of the 2018-2019 flu season’s vaccine was only 29% because it failed to protect against a strain of the flu virus that appeared later in the season, according to the CDC. The vaccine was only 9% effective after that later strain appeared, The Associated Press reported.

Beliefs that the vaccine can cause the flu or other diseases, or increase hospitalization risk for the flu, have been debunked, said Greenwood. While a number of small, poorly designed studies may come to different conclusions, individuals need to look at the body of research as a whole, he said. Everyone, except those who are allergic to the components of the vaccine, should consider getting the flu shot, Greenwood said.

While there are some negative side effects associated with the flu shot, these are mild, and the benefits of the vaccine far outweigh the risks, chief medical officer for Walgreens Kevin Ban said in an email to the Deseret News. Side effects may include “soreness, redness, and/or swelling where the shot was given, headache, fever, nausea, muscle aches, and fatigue,” Ban said.

Sarah Hourston, medical student, gives Scott Stringham a flu shot as Jax the dog and Linda Rawson watch at a drive-thru flu vaccine clinic for veterans at the George E. Wahlen Department of Veteran Affairs Medical Center in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2020. The clinic is available for veterans Monday to Friday from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Filip Roos, chief medical officer for Ogden Regional Medical Center, said the hospital has stepped up its efforts to vaccinate against the flu this year.

“The vaccine is not 100% at all,” said Roos. “It decreases the chances of getting the flu, and any decrease in a preventable disease is a benefit to the health system.”

“Vaccines are important. Vaccines are proven to save lives,” said Roos. “We live in a world now where we ought to be more socially responsible. That means masking, social dancing, hand-washing and acting not like we live in a vacuum but like we live in a society and have a responsibility to others.”

Who should get a vaccine and when?

Everyone over the age of 6 months should get a flu shot each season to help protect against the flu, according to the CDC.

Ban said Walgreens recently lowered the age requirement to 3 years old in most states in an effort to help vaccinate even more people this flu season. The drug store chain also offers higher doses, often recommended for patients 65 and older. Ultimately, Ban recommends that patients contact their local pharmacist or health care provider about what is right for them.  

“We should not limit the vaccination, or recommended vaccinations, to the elderly and the high-risk patients, but to everyone who is eligible to obtain one,” Roos said.

Roos added that October is the best time to get a flu vaccine, although it is still effective if received in the following months. “Sooner than later is better,” he said.

Late December, early January, is when the Salt Lake City VA typically starts to see a rise in flu patients, according to Lambiase.

“Really, really, truly, good hand hygiene, wearing your mask and getting your flu shot are the most important things you can do to stay healthy this winter,” she said.