Health care providers are urging people to give themselves the gift of protection against the flu this holiday season and get the flu shot. Influenza viruses circulate year round, but "the most wonderful time of the year" encompasses peak flu season, which typically occurs between December and February, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The warning comes as flu activity appears to be spiking even earlier than usual this year.
The CDC is reporting that 30 states—especially southern states like Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina—are already seeing flu activity. A preliminary estimates report states that there have already been 1.7 million to 2.5 million flu illnesses nationwide between October and November. Of those, there have been at least 16,000 hospitalizations and up to 2,400 deaths—some of which were children.
"This is a stark reminder of the powerful influenza virus, and that Americans need to be fully prepared for the fast approaching peak season, which continues through the holidays and into next year," Richard Webby, Ph.D., a member of the infectious disease department at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and a member of the World Health Organization (WHO) vaccine composition team that develops and advises each year's flu vaccine, said in a statement.
He noted that if you haven't gotten your annual flu shot already, now is the optimal time to receive it. "Due to the nature of the vaccine, it takes a few weeks to build up immunity and offer full protection," says Dr. Webby.
According to a 2018 CDC study, published in Clinical Infectious Diseases, on average, about 8 percent of the U.S. population gets sick from flu each season, with a range of between 3% and 11%, depending on the season. The same study highlighted why parents have extra cause to be concerned: Children are most likely to get sick from flu.
"It is even more critical for the most vulnerable in our society, including the elderly, children and those with chronic illnesses, to be vaccinated immediately," says Dr. Webby.
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That said, it's no surprise that the CDC recommends everyone six months and older get a flu shot early to preempt spread of the virus. There are certain groups who are greater risk for complications from the flu: people with diabetes, pregnant women, adults over 65, children under five, those with asthma and other chronic lung diseases, those with kidney and liver disorders, heart disease patients, and those with compromised immune systems.
Here, the facts on flu shot availability and other must-knows about the 2019-2020 flu season.
Where to Get the 2019 Flu Shot
RiteAid is currently offering a quadrivalent flu vaccine for the 2019-2020 flu season, which provides protection against four strains of the flu: the influenza A H3N2 virus, the influenza A H1N1 virus and two strains of influenza B virus; FLUAD, a trivalent vaccine with adjuvant, an ingredient that helps create a stronger immune response to vaccination, approved for people 65 and older; Fluzone HD, a high-dose vaccine indicated for patients 65 and older; and Flublok, a unique vaccine that is processed without EGG, indicated for patients 18 and older.
Flu shots are covered by most insurance plans, including Medicare Part B, and available during pharmacy hours. (You don't have to make an appointment.)
Jocelyn Konrad, executive vice president, pharmacy and retail operations, Rite Aid, said in the release, "Although last year’s flu season was less severe than the year before, it was the longest in 10 years. With flu season getting longer, it’s even more important to get a flu shot early. Receiving a flu shot remains the best way to protect against the flu and its potentially severe consequences. We encourage everyone to stop by their local Rite Aid to get a flu shot today and help create flu-free communities."
The majority of CVS Pharmacy stores and MinuteClinic locations are also currently stocked and able to administer the flu shot to patients at their convenience, according to a spokesperson for the company.
You can also check with your health care provider, urgent care clinic, or local pharmacy to see if they're administering this season's flu vaccine. Most doctors cover the total cost of the shot for patients who have health insurance.
How Long Will the Flu Shot Protect You?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tells doctors that it's safe to make flu shots available to all age groups whenever the vaccine becomes available every year. That said, they note that, "No one can predict when influenza disease will peak in a given season. Several studies have reported decreases in vaccine effectiveness within a single influenza season with increasing time since vaccination. However waning effects have not been observed consistently across age groups, virus subtypes and seasons."
While "delaying vaccination might permit greater immunity later in the season," the CDC explains, pointing to evidence from a 2013 study, that "deferral could result in missed opportunities to vaccinate."
The "data are very mixed" on how long your immunity will last after getting the shot, John J. Treanor, M.D., an infectious disease specialist at the University of Rochester medical school, told NPR. "Some studies suggest vaccines lose some protectiveness during the course of a single flu season," he said. "Flu activity generally starts in the fall, but peaks in January or February and can run into the spring. So some might worry that if [they] got vaccinated very early and flu didn't show up until very late, it might not work as well."
But some studies show "you still have protection from the shot you got last year, if it's a year when the strains didn't change," Treanor noted.
In short, many variables—like an individual's immune system and the specific flu strains that end up circulating over the course of the season—affect how long the shot will last. But since the CDC states that "optimally, vaccination should occur before onset of influenza activity in the community," sooner might be better.
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How Effective Is the Flu Shot?
The flu shot's overall effectiveness varies from year to year, according to the CDC. The protection you'll get from the shot depends on your age and health, as well as the similarity or "match" between the viruses or virus in the vaccine and those that are circulating during the season.
However, recent effectiveness studies show that flu vaccination reduces the risk of flu illness by between 40 percent and 60 percent among the overall population during seasons when most circulating flu viruses are well-matched to the shot.
What Other Measures Guard Against the Flu?
In addition to getting the flu vaccine, there are also additional simple and effective prevention tips that will protect us and our families, Webby points out. "Simple things like washing our hands regularly and using hand sanitizer, staying home when we’re sick, covering our mouth and nose when coughing, or sneezing will go a long way in protecting us from getting influenza," he says.
The Bottom Line
Whether you already got your shot or plan to ASAP, getting vaccinated for the 2019-2020 flu season will protect you and your kids against the strains that are circulating now. Plus, as the CDC points out, it may also protect people around you, including those who are more vulnerable to serious flu illness. It's a win-win.