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IU doctor explains why the flu vaccine is so important this year

Oct 23, 2020

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, reducing the spread of respiratory illnesses like influenza during fall and winter is more important than ever.

a young woman lying across her bed
Cold and flu season is approaching, even as the COVID-19 pandemic continues.Photo by Getty Images

It’s important to get your flu shot this season because of how similar the symptoms of flu are to COVID-19, and is required for those who will be on campus regularly. If you have flu symptoms, you will need to isolate until you can be screened and tested to confirm you do not have COVID-19.

Dr. Lana Dbeibo, an infectious disease expert on the IU Medical Response Team and assistant professor of clinical medicine at the IU School of Medicine, recently shared with Inside IU her thoughts about the flu versus COVID-19, the flu vaccine and what to do if you fall ill:

Question: Why is it so important I get a flu shot this year?

Answer: Flu vaccines reduce the risk of getting an infection with the flu and reduce the severity of the sickness. Plus, when you take the flu shot, you are protecting yourself as well as those around you.

It is also particularly important to take this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Both the flu and COVID-19 can cause respiratory infections and pneumonia – and in some cases death – and medical professionals worry that if someone were to be infected with both these viruses at the same time, they might have a severe form of illness that would be much worse than each of them alone.

During this flu season, it is important to limit – where possible – all respiratory syndromes that could be consistent with COVID-19 since they all utilize the same testing, quarantine and hospital resources/infrastructure that COVID-19 patients require. These resources are limited. If they are used up in response to influenza outbreaks, we won’t be able to adequately respond to COVID-19, which doesn’t have a treatment or a vaccine. This will result in longer turnaround times, longer ER wait times, fewer tests, and potentially more morbidity and spread of COVID-19.

Q: How can I tell if I have the flu or COVID-19?

A: The only way to tell is to get tested. In addition, some people might be infected with both viruses, so it is not always one or the other. Given that COVID-19, flu and other common respiratory viruses cause similar symptoms, anytime you develop any of these symptoms – no matter how mild – you should assume it could be COVID-19 until proven otherwise by a test.

Q: Will a flu vaccine help me if I contract COVID-19?

A: No. However, it will reduce the risk of one virus so that you don’t get both at the same time.

EDITOR’S NOTE, updated Oct. 13: If you’d like to receive a flu vaccine at a campus clinic, make an appointment through the Student Health Center’s online scheduler. Clinics are currently scheduled on the IU Bloomington, IUPUI, IU East, IU Kokomo, IU Northwest, IU South Bend and IU Southeast campuses; other campuses will be available soon. If you choose to receive a flu vaccine somewhere other than an IU flu clinic or campus health center, you will need to fill out the Flu Vaccine Reporting Form to let IU know you have received a vaccination. If you’re requesting an exemption, use the exemption request form.

As part of Indiana University’s pandemic response, all staff, faculty and students whose work or class schedule requires them to be regularly present on campus will be required to get an annual flu vaccine during the fall 2020 semester.

A person's arm with a bandaid on it
All IU employees and students who are regularly on campus will be required to get an annual flu vaccine this year.Photo by Getty Images

Flu vaccine clinics will be offered at every IU campus beginning in October. Information on where to go, how to sign up for a time slot, where to request an exemption and more will be provided later this month.

The on-campus clinics are for current faculty and staff and enrolled students only; they are not open to dependents or spouses of employees, or to retired faculty or staff.

Employees and students who are unable to get a vaccine due to a medical condition, or who have a religious or other ethical reason, can request an exemption. Employees and students who will not be present on campus between Dec. 1, 2020, and March 1, 2021, can also request an exemption.

“We worry that people may get severe illness if they were to be infected with COVID and influenza simultaneously,” said Dr. Lana Dbeibo, part of the IU Medical Response Team and assistant professor of clinical medicine at the IU School of Medicine. “These viruses can cause complications including pneumonia, respiratory failure and even death, so prevention with available vaccines is very important, particularly for this season.”

The flu vaccine is recommended for all individuals 6 months and older who have no contraindications, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

When should I get my vaccine?

Faculty and staff who do not request an exemption must obtain a flu vaccine by Dec. 1, 2020. Students who don’t request an exemption must obtain a vaccine by Dec. 1, 2020, if they will be studying or working on campus after Nov. 20, or by Jan. 15, 2021, if they will not be studying or working on campus after Nov. 20.

Do I have to get a vaccine?

Staff, faculty and students will be required to affirm they’ve received a flu vaccine. Additional information about the form will be provided soon, and faculty, staff and students are expected to provide accurate information to the university about when they received the vaccine.

What kind of vaccines will IU offer?

The flu vaccine clinics at IU will offer quadrivalent, single-dose vaccines. They are coming from two manufacturers and go by the trade names of Fluzone and Fluarix.

Neither the high-dose vaccine for those over 65 nor the eggless vaccine will be available at the university-sponsored clinics. Staff, faculty or students who need those types of vaccines are encouraged to seek them through an in-network provider under their insurance plan.

Where else can I get a vaccine, and how much will it cost?

Flu vaccines are covered at no cost as preventive care for faculty and staff on all IU-sponsored health plans, whether the shot is received on campus or through an in-network provider under their insurance plan in the community. Flu vaccines will be available at no cost to students, but insurance will be billed for anyone who has coverage through IU or through a non-IU plan (such as a parent plan).

IU has purchased a larger-than-usual number of flu vaccines this year; however, the university was unable to obtain enough doses to vaccinate all employees and students.

If you cannot attend one of IU’s clinics, suggestions for locations to receive a flu vaccine include:

  • Retail pharmacies: Check with your retail pharmacy for influenza shot availability. Employees, students, and covered dependents and spouses enrolled in IU-sponsored medical plans can receive the seasonal flu vaccine at no cost at in-network retail pharmacies, like CVS and Kroger.
  • Health care provider: In most cases, your primary-care provider can administer flu shots. Employees, students, and covered dependents and spouses enrolled on IU-sponsored medical plans can receive the seasonal flu vaccine at no cost through their local in-network physician.

Q: What should I do if I test positive for the flu? Can I get COVID-19 and the flu at the same time? Can I get the flu more than once in a season?

A: If you test positive for the flu, you should remain in isolation until your symptoms improve and you have no fever for 24 hours without using fever-reducing medications. You can have both flu and COVID-19 at the same time. You can also get the flu more than once in a season because often there is more than one type of influenza virus circulating.

Q: How safe are flu vaccines?

A: Flu vaccines have a very good safety profile for individuals above 6 months of age. There are very rare medical exceptions for taking the flu vaccine.

Q: How should I prepare in case I need to isolate at home?

A: We should all be prepared to be in isolation or quarantine this season, either for the flu, COVID-19 or other viral infections. My advice:

  • Think ahead of time of the best place where you can safely isolate or quarantine.
  • Stock up on food that isn’t easily perishable – think canned soup or other canned products – as well as water, sports drinks and juice.
  • Make sure you have at least a 14-day supply of your medications, hand sanitizer and masks for when you go to the doctor’s office or the testing site.
  • Stock up on personal supplies, including cold and flu medications, and a first aid kit.

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