National, state, and regional public health experts have spent much of the past eight months encouraging the United States population to get a COVID-19 vaccine.

That remains their top priority, but their focus over the past several weeks has included another topic of utmost importance — reminders for people to get their flu vaccines.

October represents the start of flu season, and Virginia Tech officials began messaging centered on encouraging the campus population to get their flu vaccines. The university set up a website dedicated to information about the flu and flu shots, and both Hokie Wellness and Schiffert Health Center already have held clinics at various times throughout the month to administer the vaccine both to students and to employees.

The messaging started early because university officials wanted to take a proactive approach. They’ve been informed by public health officials that this year’s flu season possesses the potential to be severe.

“We usually look at what happens in the Southern Hemisphere,” said Noelle Bissell, director of the New River Health District, which encompasses Virginia Tech's Blacksburg campus and Montgomery County. “We’re kind of the opposite of them [from a seasonal perspective]. They did have much more of a significant flu season, so we are expecting to see more flu this year. We’ve already started to see flu A and flu B [two influenza strains], and that’s a little bit on the early side for us.”

Getting a flu vaccine certainly mitigates one’s risk. But what are other ways to limit the flu’s impact? Also, how will a flu vaccine affect someone if he/she has received a COVID vaccine? Can the two vaccines be administered simultaneously? 

Bissell and two Virginia Tech experts — Laura Hungerford, the head of the Department of Population Health Sciences within the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine; and Monica Goyanko, the health quality outreach manager at Schiffert— offered answers to these questions and more.

Vaccination, the easiest step

The best and easiest way to reduce the risk of serious flu-related illness, hospitalization, or even death is to get a flu shot. Other measures exist, including many used currently by the population to combat COVID-19 — such as washing of hands, covering the mouth and nose while coughing or sneezing, and staying home from work or school if feeling poorly.

“If you don’t plan to be vaccinated, then all those things we learned to do to stop the spread of COVID really work even better to stop the spread of flu,” Hungerford said. “But these take a lot more effort and lifestyle change than just getting the vaccine.”

Public health officials encourage getting the vaccine now at the start of the flu season, which runs from October through May. It takes roughly two weeks for a person to develop fully the antibodies to protect against the flu after being vaccinated.

“October is the best month to get vaccinated, so individuals will have full protection before the flu is actively spreading,” Goyanko said.

Predicting severity of a flu season

Public health officials look at what transpires in the Southern Hemisphere to get a glimpse as to what to expect, as Bissell said. Experts also conduct, compile, and analyze data from around the world throughout the year.

“Organizations, like the CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention], work with members of the scientific community to forecast the upcoming flu season through methods like modeling,” Goyanko said. “Whether a flu season will be good or bad will depend on when experts expect the flu season to start, when it will peak, how high is the peak, and how many individuals in the population are at risk for infection versus how many are not because of immunity [including those who got the flu shot].”

Last year turned out to be an outlier in terms of the collection of flu data. Normally, health clinics see thousands of cases a week during flu season, but saw few in 2020 because most people worked from home and attended school virtually because of COVID, thus limiting the spread of the flu virus.

“Last year was amazing,” Hungerford said. “Influenza is less contagious than COVID, so all the efforts to stop the spread of COVID had an even bigger effect on influenza. Without those measures, and if people don’t get the flu vaccine, we are all at risk for a disease that can be even more severe than COVID in the young and the old.”

Flu vaccine vs. COVID vaccine

People who have received a COVID vaccine do need to get a flu vaccine. Yes, influenza and COVID produce similar symptoms, but both are two different viruses, and pharmaceutical companies produce vaccines specifically to target each virus.

“Yes, everyone six months and older should get an annual flu shot, even if they have already had the COVID-19 vaccine,” Goyanko said. “COVID-19 and the flu are different viruses.”

The flu vaccine targets the four most common flu viruses, according to research done each year by scientists. Flu viruses constantly change, so scientists review the data annually and make changes to the vaccine accordingly.

Receiving the two vaccines together

For those who haven’t received the COVID vaccine, they may get that one and the flu vaccine at the same time.

This represents a change of thought from those in the scientific community. Many scientists and medical doctors have been hesitant to administer certain vaccines at the same time, but they have determined that the COVID vaccine and the flu vaccine can be administered in one visit.

“When the COVID vaccine was new, it was recommended not to get another vaccine within two weeks of the COVID vaccine,” Hungerford said. “But there is so much new data since then that CDC now has concluded that it is fine to get the flu and COVID shot at the same time.”

Those who get both vaccines at the same time may experience some temporary side effects, such as body aches. They also may want to consider getting one shot in each arm to avoid soreness.

How does the booster shot figure in?

Currently, anyone over the age of 65 is eligible for a COVID booster shot, along with anyone over the age of 18 who meets specific criteria (e.g., those who live in long-term care settings or with underlying conditions). Public health experts continue to encourage people in these groups to get the flu vaccine as well.

The same experts also encourage those who are approaching these age requirements to go ahead and get the flu vaccine.

“If you are due for your flu shot and not yet in the group that is approved for COVID boosters, you should go ahead and get the flu shot rather than wait,” Hungerford said. “You want to be protected against the flu.”

Looking ahead

Can a person get the COVID vaccine and flu vaccine in one solitary shot? No, not yet.

But the day is coming.

“Moderna is working on a COVID booster that would have the flu vaccine in the same shot,” Hungerford said. “But it won’t be ready for this year.”

Currently, Moderna and Novavax are conducting trials and hope to post results next year. Mixing and matching vaccines is not a new concept, and doing such creates efficiency in the health care system, while allowing consumers to stay on a more consistent vaccination schedule.

Virginia Tech employees and students looking for more information can do so by clicking here.

For flu vaccine clinics for students, please click here.

For flu vaccine clinics for employees, please click here.

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