It’s time for Utahns to get their annual flu shots, but what if they also still need to be vaccinated against COVID-19, or are now eligible for a booster dose?
No problem, say health experts, since now the shots can be given together.
“You can get any vaccine at the same time that you get the COVID vaccine, and that includes the influenza vaccine,” said Dr. Tamara Sheffield, medical director of preventive medicine for Intermountain Healthcare, the region’s largest health care provider. “We are very confident that it’s just fine.”
Patients are being encouraged to take advantage of the one-stop opportunity to be protected against both the flu and COVID-19 after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention earlier this year stopped advising that coronavirus shots be avoided within two weeks of other vaccines to help identify any reactions.
“Now that we’ve had millions of people getting the COVID vaccine, we really know very well what the side effects are from it. So we don’t have to be examining that anymore,” Sheffield said. She said multiple vaccines are often given together, particularly in children.
The CDC spells out on its website that, “You can get a COVID-19 vaccine and other vaccines, including a flu vaccine, at the same visit.” The coronavirus vaccine is available to anyone 12 and older and may soon be approved for children as young as 5.
According to the federal agency, “Experience with other vaccines has shown that the way our bodies develop protection, known as an immune response, and possible side effects after getting vaccinated are generally the same when given alone or with other vaccines.”
Those who’ve experienced swelling, redness or other reactions in their arms after getting a flu shot may want to switch arms for their COVID-19 shot, Sheffield said, especially if they’re getting the higher dose of influenza vaccine available to older and more vulnerable adults.
The case for getting both shots at once
Could two shots end up making them feel worse than they would after just one?
“Not necessarily,” Sheffield said. “You’re just turning on your immune system and it depends on how you feel when your immune system turns on. Some people have a stronger response that makes them feverish or achey for a longer period of time than other people.”
“If you want to feel bad for only one time, then you get them together,” she said. “It’s really your preference.”
What the medical community wants to avoid is having concerns about either vaccine causing “people not to get the other one, because they’re both important,” Sheffield said, especially as hospitals in Utah and around the country are being hard-hit by the ongoing surge in COVID-19 cases fueled by the highly contagious delta variant.
On top of that, it’s not clear just how bad the flu season will be this year, following virtually no cases last winter due to masking, social distancing, limits on gatherings and other measures mandated to stop the spread of the coronavirus that have largely been curtailed.
“It’s still a little too early to tell whether we’re going to have a normal flu season, still have a low rate like we had last year or have a very high rate, which is possible. Many times, after you’ve had little influenza going around, you tend to have a more vigorous season,” she said.
Audrey Stevenson, Salt Lake County Health Department division director of family health and clinical services, also warned of the possibility of both flu and COVID-19 outbreaks throughout the state this winter.
“The fear is we are really susceptible to both diseases this year, because we have relaxed some of the precautions that we had last year that prevented a lot of the respiratory illnesses,” Stevenson said, including RSV or respiratory syncytial virus, which started showing up again in Utah this summer.
Getting both vaccines at the same time makes sense for most people, she said, noting Utahns who currently qualify for COVID-19 booster shots — deemed at higher risk because they’re at least 65 years old or live in a long-term care facility or have certain medical conditions and received the Pfizer vaccine — are also vulnerable to flu.
“We worry about them for both the flu and the COVID vaccine, so we really would recommend that people get both so there isn’t that missed opportunity, either that they forgot, or for some reason they were unable to get back to get that influenza (shot) and they remain unprotected,” Stevenson said. “We really don’t want to see that.”
Vaccines aren’t just for you
Utahns need to remember that vaccines not only protect the person getting the shot, but those around them as well, Stevenson said, although even those fully vaccinated against COVID-19 — meaning its been two weeks or more since their final dose — can still contract a breakthrough case and spread the virus, even without showing symptoms.
“We need to be conscientious that, just like the drunk driver affects other people by the decision they make to drink and drive, my decision to get a vaccine impacts other people either directly or indirectly,” Stevenson said. “That’s true of any communicable disease.”
There are already efforts in Utah to promote getting an annual flu shot along with the COVID-19 vaccine, including at doctor’s offices and at local pharmacies, where about 70% of Salt Lake County residents are currently getting their COVID-19 vaccinations.
Salt Lake County is offering the flu vaccine to those showing up for COVID-19 booster shots at the county’s five health care clinics, Stevenson said, and encouraging doctors and pharmacists who are giving coronavirus shots to do the same.
A ‘Flu Shootout’ event — with COVID-19 vaccines
The Tri-County Health Department, which serves Uintah, Duchesne and Daggett counties, is planning on providing COVID-19 vaccines — including boosters for Utahns who are eligible — at four “Flu Shootout” events Oct. 6 and 7 in Vernal, Manila, Roosevelt and Duchesne.
“We’re excited to be out in the community with flu shots again this year. I encourage everyone to get the flu shot each fall. My family and I get the flu shot each year; in part to reduce our risk of getting sick, but also to help make sure we aren’t spreading the flu to others during the holidays.” TriCounty health officer Kirk Benge, said.
Benge said he’s “also pleased that this year we will have COVID-19 vaccines available at the same time. Anyone that is in need of a first or second dose or anyone wanting a Pfizer booster dose is welcome to get it, or get it alongside their flu shot this year.”
But the Utah County Health Department said the shots are not being offered together at larger vaccination sites, department spokeswoman Aislynn Toleman-Hill said, because the high demand for COVID-19 booster shots has made that option “logistically difficult.”