By the Minnesota Council of Health Plans and the Minnesota Hospital Association

 

With so much attention being paid to COVID-19 — and rightly so — it’s easy to forget about another serious virus that we deal with every year: influenza, or the flu. While it’s important to get your flu shot every year, 2020 is arguably the most critical year in decades to make sure that you and your family are protected against this virus.

Let’s start with a quick primer on influenza.

What is the flu?

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Influenza, or “the flu,” isn’t just one virus. It’s a contagious respiratory illness caused by different types of influenza viruses that change every year. These viruses can cause mild to severe illness, and even death. Some people simply feel cold-like symptoms. Others have more serious reactions and have to be hospitalized.

What serious conditions can influenza lead to?

In more severe cases, the flu can cause pneumonia, bronchitis and infections in the ears and sinuses. It can also make chronic health problems worse. If you have asthma, it can cause an asthma attack. If you have chronic congestive heart failure, it can increase your risk of a heart attack. Even if you don’t have pre-existing conditions, the flu can lead to serious issues, especially if you’re not vaccinated against it.

Who’s most at risk of flu complications?

If you fit into any of the following categories, you could have a higher risk of getting more seriously ill from the flu:

  • Adults 65 and older
  • Pregnant women
  • Young children
  • People with asthma
  • People with heart disease
  • People with a history of strokes
  • People with diabetes
  • People with HIV/AIDS
  • Cancer patients
  • Children with neurologic conditions

What does the flu shot do?

The flu shot stimulates your immune system to be better prepared to recognize and attack the influenza virus. Because the flu virus changes every year, the influenza vaccine is updated annually to provide the best match between the vaccine and the actual virus.

How effective is the flu vaccine?

Effectiveness varies year to year, but recent CDC studies show that flu vaccination reduces the risk of flu illness 40-60% among the overall population during seasons when it’s well-matched to circulating flu viruses.

Why should I get a flu shot?

There are almost too many reasons to list here, but here are the top ones:

  • It can keep you from getting sick with flu. Flu vaccine prevents millions of illnesses and flu-related doctor visits each year. During the 2017-2018 season, flu vaccination prevented an estimated 6.2 million influenza illnesses, 3.2 million influenza-associated medical visits, 91,000 influenza-associated hospitalizations, and 5,700 influenza-associated deaths.
  • It can keep you and your kids out of the hospital—and even save your life. A 2017 study showed that the flu shot can significantly reduce a child’s chances of dying from the flu. A 2014 study showed that flu vaccine can reduce children’s risk of flu-related pediatric intensive care unit admission by 74%. And a 2018 study showed that flu vaccination among adults can reduce the risk of being admitted to an intensive care unit with flu by 82%.
  • If you have a chronic health condition, it can help prevent complications from it. Flu vaccination has been associated with lower rates of some cardiac events among people with heart disease. It can also reduce hospital visits for flu-related chronic lung disease in people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and it has been associated with reduced hospitalizations among people with diabetes and chronic lung disease.
  • If you’re pregnant, it can help protect you during and after pregnancy. Flu vaccination cuts in half the risk of flu-associated acute respiratory infection in pregnant women, and it has been shown to reduce pregnant women’s risk of flu-related hospitalization by an average of 40%. A number of studies have also shown that women who get a flu shot during pregnancy help protect their baby from getting the flu for several months after their birth.

Why is it especially important to get a flu shot this year?

Put simply: COVID-19. Flu season is already challenging for hospitals and emergency rooms. As an example, the 2018–2019 flu season resulted in about half a million hospitalizations and more than 34,000 deaths nationwide. Communities of color, which have already been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19, historically have also been more likely to have chronic health conditions that put them at higher risk of influenza-related complications.

Because COVID-19 symptoms so closely mirror the flu, a crush of influenza cases could further strain the medical system in testing, diagnosis, isolation and treatment of COVID patients. If this happens, getting the best medical care for either COVID or influenza becomes more challenging.

Bottom line: As flu season rapidly approaches, it’s important to talk to your doctor about how and when to receive this year’s influenza vaccine. This year more than any other, the flu shot is essential to keep you, your children, your neighbors and our entire health care system healthy. For more information on how health plans, hospitals, health systems and clinics are making flu vaccinations more accessible during the pandemic, click here.

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