Amita Vyas of the Milken Institute SPH lays out the reasons GW and the CDC are encouraging flu vaccination during the COVID-19 pandemic
By Ruth Steinhardt
The COVID-19 pandemic may have overshadowed the approach of flu season, but the disease that kills tens of thousands every year remains a threat. The George Washington University strongly encourages students, faculty and staff to get vaccinated, since doing so may be more important than ever.
GW Today spoke to Dr. Amita Vyas, associate professor of prevention and community health and director of the maternal and child health program at the Milken Institute School of Public Health, about how getting vaccinated for flu can help communities weather the season and withstand COVID-19.
Q: Why is it important to get vaccinated for the flu, especially this year in the context of COVID-19?
A: Every year during flu season we know we need hospitals to have the capacity to take on thousands of influenza patients. Vaccinating as many people as possible prevents thousands of deaths and hospitalizations and eases the burden on our health care system.
This year that strain is particularly intense because flu season is approaching just as COVID-19 cases are increasing across the country. We could be going into a surge, or what people are considering the second wave. The fear is that our hospitals will not have the capacity to handle those two events in concert. They won’t have the beds and the ventilators to be able to manage the number of COVID-19 patients who might need to be hospitalized in addition to flu patients. So if we can break down the number of people who become sick and need hospitalization, we should do that. Vaccinations do that. And we can’t yet vaccinate for COVID-19, but we can for flu.
The vaccine is usually about 40 to 60 percent effective, because the flu strain changes and mutates every year, making it hard to be foolproof. But that’s still a huge reduction in cases that can save thousands of lives.
On a less urgent level, getting the flu can be serious and time-consuming. Symptoms like fever, body aches, a sore throat and nausea are unpleasant even if you aren’t hospitalized, and you may lose days of work or school.
Q: Who should get vaccinated?
The CDC recommends the flu vaccine for almost everyone over the age of 6 months. Many people in the GW community are young and healthy and are not likely to be hospitalized if they get it. But it is still our responsibility, as members of the larger Washington, D.C., community—or any community you are part of—to protect those who are most vulnerable to severe flu: young children, pregnant women, the elderly and those who are immunocompromised or have pre-existing conditions.
We also don’t know a whole lot about how COVID-19 and the flu interact together. There is some preliminary data to suggest that you can get both of them at the same time and that if you do, you're likely to become more sick. It’s one of many things we don’t know about this virus.
The good news is that a lot of the preventive behaviors that we know slow the spread of COVID—like social distancing, wearing face coverings and masks, cleaning common spaces and washing our hands often—all of those don’t just protect us against COVID-19, but likely against the flu as well. It’s very possible that if we continue to adhere to all of these behaviors and also vaccinate ourselves, we might be able to decrease the spread of flu in our communities.
Q: How can GW community members get a flu shot?
We want to make it as easy as possible for people to get their flu vaccine. Students, faculty and staff who are authorized to be on campus this year can be vaccinated free of charge, in the same location as their weekly COVID-19 test. And GW students who are in the area, whether they’re authorized to be on campus or not, can call the Colonial Health Center at 202-994-5300 for an appointment to receive a flu vaccine, also free of charge.
For those who are elsewhere, there are lots of strategies to get a free or low-cost flu shot. The CDC has a tool to locate immunization resources near you, or you can also check with your local Department of Health.
Q: What do you think is the most important takeaway for the GW community as we head into flu season amid a potential second wave of COVID-19?
A: It’s important to remember both what we don’t know about COVID-19 and what we have the power to do right now. COVID-19 is frightening, for sure. We don’t know what its interactions with the flu might be, and we don’t really have measures for its severity other than rates of hospitalization and mortality—which completely misses the number of people who get really, really sick and may not be hospitalized, or people who may not exhibit many symptoms but suffer long-term consequences to their health.
But we also need to realize that we are empowered to do something about its spread and the spread of other infectious diseases. Some of this is in our hands. By getting vaccinated, by practicing good social hygiene, we have the power to protect ourselves and vulnerable people in our communities.