Flu shots aren’t something most people think about until later in the fall or even winter.
But that’s changing this year now that everyone is being urged to get the newly updated COVID-19 booster shots as soon as they’re eligible. Why not, they figure, go ahead and get their annual flu shot out of the way at the same time?
Well, it might be better to hold off on a flu shot if you can, health experts say.
What you need to know
1. It’s important to get both an annual influenza vaccination and the COVID-19 booster shot.
Influenza vaccine is recommended for everyone six months and older. COVID-19 booster shots, reformulated to target the omicron subvariants causing nearly all of the nation’s cases, are authorized for anyone 12 and older two months after completing the original vaccination series or getting a previous booster.
Both shots are widely available, through doctors, pharmacies and local health departments.
Pharmacist Tad Jolley, owner of Jolley’s Pharmacy Redwood in South Jordan, said he expects demand for flu shots to be up this year. On Monday alone, four customers got the flu vaccine, he said, two at the same time they received the new COVID-19 booster.
“With all of the COVID craziness that we’ve had, I think it’s an indication that people are going to get vaccinated. They see that vaccines work. I think we’re going to see more people getting flu shots,” Jolley said, adding. “Flu is not going away.”
2. Timing a flu shot can be tricky, but experts want people to get the updated COVID-19 booster as soon as they’re eligible.
“We haven’t seen the flu yet, but we have COVID,” Utah Department of Health and Human Services spokeswoman Jenny Johnson said, adding that the “omicron variant is here right now. It’s making a lot of people sick and it spreads quickly.”
When it comes to influenza, though, she said “there’s not a best time” to get the annual dose of vaccine.
“You want to get your flu vaccine early in the flu season to provide optimal protection against the flu. But we don’t always know when flu season is going to start,” Johnson said. While that’s usually sometime in October, it may come later and last longer, she said, while vaccine protection lasts around six months.
Dr. Tamara Sheffield, medical director of preventative medicine for Intermountain Healthcare, said deciding when to get a flu shot is a balancing act to make sure you’re protected before influenza hits. There’s concern that the U.S. could see an early start to the flu season this year, based on the southern hemisphere’s winter experience.
“Most commonly it peaks right around January and February, so there are definitely individuals who should not get (the influenza vaccine) early,” Sheffield said, particularly those over 65 whose immunity tends to wane more quickly, leaving them vulnerable to the virus sooner than others who’ve been vaccinated.
“Every month, your protection goes away a little bit,” the doctor said. “Kind of the rule of thumb is 100 days. You don’t want to be getting it more than 100 days before the peak, because then you’re at more of a risk of the vaccine not working for you.”
That’s why older people may want to wait until October or November to get their flu shots, Sheffield said, although there are other groups that shouldn’t wait, including women who are in their third trimester of pregnancy and young children who need two doses.
But everyone eligible should get the updated COVID-19 booster shot right away. Sheffield said.
“You want to get your COVID right now because right now is when the omicron variant is circulating that’s in the new bivalent booster,” she said. “So you don’t want to delay on COVID at all. You don’t want to say, ‘Oh, I’ll just wait until October or November to get my COVID vaccine.’ It’s like no, right now is when we’re all at risk.”
3. Both the flu and COVID-19 booster shots can safely be given at the same time.
The Biden administration is encouraging getting the shots together, once “the annual flu vaccination campaign kicks into high gear later this month,” the White House’s COVID-19 coordinator, Ashish Jha, said last week, joking, “I really believe this is why God gave us two arms — one for the flu shot and the other one for the COVID shot.”
State health officials are recommending that providers accommodate patients who want both shots now, if it’s going to be difficult for them to return for the influenza vaccine due to work or other obligations — or if they’ll likely to skip a second appointment, Johnson said.
“We don’t want people to miss a chance,” she said.
Sheffield also said it’s better not to wait than to end up not getting vaccinated against the flu.
“If people delay, and then don’t get it, that’s even worse,” the doctor said, leading to more hospitalizations. “The key thing is, if you don’t know that you’re going to go get it (later), get it now, if you have the opportunity. Or make sure if you time it, to say, ‘Let’s get it in October or November,’ don’t forget to do it.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported the first name of Tad Jolley, the owner of Jolley’s Pharmacy Redwood, as Ted.