The first of October, the traditional start of flu season is here, and that begs the question of whether people are reluctant to get a vaccine because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We don’t want a ‘twin-demic’,” said Dr. Ayne Amjad, West Virginia’s state health officer and commissioner of the state’s Department of Health & Human Resources Bureau of Public Health. “The flu vaccine is not 100 %, but we don’t have a COVID vaccine.”
The flu season typically ends around March 31 and can kill around 35,000 people in the U.S. each year. It affects 35 million to 62 million people annually, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and can send anywhere from 410,000 to 740,000 people to the hospital each year, the CDC said.
Around 50% of all West Virginians received a flu vaccination last year, according to published reports and it remains to be seen if that percentage increases or decreases from a year earlier. It typically takes 10 to 14 days for a flu shot to become effective.
“People don’t seem to be hesitant about getting a flu shot,” said Dr. Kathryn Moffett, a pediatric infectious disease specialist with West Virginia University Medicine recently. “I don’t know why people would be afraid. It’s made the same way every year.”
How is a flu shot made?
The most common way to manufacture a flu shot is to use an egg. It has been done this way for more than 70 years.
According to the CDC candidate vaccine viruses are grown in eggs under Food and Drug Administration guidelines. Once the virus is allowed to incubate for several days and then extracted. The viruses are then killed and the virus antigen is then purified.
There are also cell-based vaccines, where vaccine viruses are grown in animal cells. And the third production technology used in the flu vaccine is a recombinant technology, which are created synthetically.
To make this vaccine, flu scientists first obtain DNA – genetic instructions – for making a surface protein called hemagglutinin (HA), which is found in influenza viruses. HA is antigen that prompts the human immune system to create antibodies that target the virus.
HA is then combined with a baculovirus, which infects invertebrates, resulting in a recombinant virus.
“The role of the baculovirus is to help transport the DNA instructions for making flu virus HA antigen into the host cell,” the CDC web site said.
Vaccines are recommended starting at six months old and for pregnant women. It usually takes two weeks after a vaccine for antibodies to develop. More than 170.7 million doses of the flu vaccine have been distributed in the U.S., according to national health officials.
“There are a lot of myths out there,” Dr. Moffett said. “You don’t get flu from a vaccine, but you might get achiness and a low-grade fever. That’s a good thing because it means your immune system is ramping up. People should not be afraid of getting a flu shot.”
COVID-19 and its impact on flu season
COVID-19 isn’t going to go away any time soon and there is not yet a vaccine for it. So, how do you tell the difference between the two viruses?
“You’re not going to be able to tell unless you have a specific test,” said Jennifer Goldcamp, director of nursing clinical services for the Monongalia County Health Department. “And if you go to the office and present with symptoms, you’ll most likely be treated for both.”
Both flu and COVID-19 have similar symptoms; fever, coughing, chills and shortness of breath. One symptom common with COVID-19 is a loss of taste and smell, though not everyone with the virus has that indicator.
“The main difference is that COVID is more easily spread,” Dr. Amjad said. “COVID appears to have a higher mortality rate.”
Also, flu tends to infect a person faster than COVID-19, usually one to four days after exposure. With COVID-19, on the other hand, it takes up to 14 days before a person gets sick. A person with the novel coronavirus can also be contagious for up to 10 days after being sick.
Dr. Amjad and others admit they get frustrated when they hear people are reluctant to get the flu vaccine.
“Wear masks or a face covering,” said Amjad, when asked how someone should protect themselves if they have not gotten a vaccine. “People right now are suffering from COVID fatigue. But you have to be protected from the flu. Wash your hands and cover your mouth. Hand washing is very important. I am a big proponent of hand washing.”