Experts: It's more important than ever to get flu shots during pandemic

Last flu season, children's hospitals across the Chicago area were dealing with a particularly brutal influenza outbreak even before the coronavirus pandemic forced families into lockdown.

The severity of last year's dominant strain is reason enough for pediatricians to stress the importance of rolling up your sleeve and getting a flu shot.

But as they prepare for the double threat of a new flu season ramping up this fall during a raging pandemic, health experts are warning flu vaccines are more vital than ever. While it's especially difficult to predict flu activity, an influx of influenza-stricken patients colliding with a spike in COVID-19 cases could inundate hospitals and tax resources.

“If we can control a flu outbreak, we can also control the number of children hospitalized for the flu,” said Dr. John Cunningham, physician-in-chief at the University of Chicago's Comer Children's Hospital. “Those beds will be important for COVID patients as well if there is a surge.”

Cunningham joined fellow medical officers of the Chicagoland Children's Health Alliance in making an urgent plea Thursday to families to get their flu shots before Halloween. Annual vaccinations are the best line of defense against the flu and can lessen the severity of the illness in children if they do get sick, but it takes a few weeks to provide protection.

“Our concern for risks to children of both the flu and COVID rises as schools begin to reopen, sports teams begin to play and we start to lift some of the quarantine that existed back in March,” said Dr. Frank Belmonte, pediatrics chair at Advocate Children's Hospital.

Health experts also are worried that families aren't getting their flu shots because of pandemic fears or because employers aren't providing their usual flu shot service while people work from home.

“Our first priority is to keep everybody safe, but we also want to have very wide access to flu vaccinations,” Belmonte said.

The pediatricians recommended families call their health care providers to determine how they're managing flu vaccinations.

“Because of the pandemic, there may be some differences in the way you receive the flu vaccine this year as well,” Belmonte said. “So many of us used to have walk-in type of clinics to give the flu (shot), but right now because of social distancing and all the mitigating factors for COVID, you may have to call ahead and schedule an appointment.”

With rare exception, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends an annual flu vaccine for anyone 6 months and older.

Last year's predominant flu strain, influenza B, started circulating earlier than usual and tends to hit children the hardest. The CDC reported at least 188 children died from flu-related illness during the 2019-2020 season, matching the highest number on record, in 2017-18.

“Last year, millions of children developed influenza, and in fact across Chicago, it was one of our worst influenza seasons in recent history,” Belmonte said.

Could preventive measures against COVID-19 — social distancing, wearing masks, washing hands — make the flu season less severe? Experts don't know, Belmonte said.

“We also know that patients can get both flu and COVID simultaneously,” he said. “And we don't know what that's going to look like, if that will make the disease more severe or if there will be other complications from a combined infection.”

Teenagers and children under age 20 now constitute 12% of total COVID-19 cases in Illinois.

A study published this week suggests fever, body aches, vomiting and diarrhea are more common in children with COVID-19 than with the flu, said Dr. Michael Caplan, pediatrics department chair at NorthShore.

“It might take a little longer for COVID to develop symptoms once infected, and COVID might be a bit more contagious than the flu,” Caplan said.

Flu is contagious one to four days after infection, while COVID-19 might be contagious up to five to 10 days after symptoms appear, Caplan said.

“We know that both flu and COVID spread by droplets, so social distancing and wearing masks are really important for preventing both of these infections,” he said.

Cunningham also recommended caregivers keep children home from school if they have any symptoms.

“Even a runny nose should keep your child at home,” he said.

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