Amid pandemic, getting annual flu shot is more important than ever

Photo of vaccination by Fiona Goodall/Getty Images.

In 1796, English physician Edward Jenner made an observation: when deliberately exposed to cowpox – a relatively mild illness spread routinely from cattle to humans – patients developed immunity not just to cowpox, but to smallpox, a deadly virus that had killed countless individuals around the world throughout recorded history. The first vaccine was invented, saving an incalculable number of lives.

Vaccines are one of the most potent lifesaving tools that modern medicine has ever produced. With enough production capacity and cooperation from the public, the impact of many infectious diseases can be blunted or even eliminated. And the occurrence of more complex families of diseases, like the flu, can be reduced.

Most see the flu as little more than an inconvenience. A week or so off of work, fluids and bed rest, and you’re good as new. The truth is, though, that during the 2019-2020 flu season, around 750,000 people were hospitalized with the flu. More than 60,000 people died. For the very young, the very old, for people with underlying health conditions, or for those who are immunocompromised, the flu might mean a life-or-death hospital stay.

We’re in a unique and terrible moment in history, where the novel coronavirus has upended our way of life and killed hundreds of thousands around the world and here at home. To combat it, school years ended early, stay-at-home orders were put into place, and each and every person was asked to do their part to slow the spread of what became known as COVID-19. Wear a mask or a cloth face covering. Stand six feet apart. Don’t gather in large groups. Avoid nonessential travel.

I’d like to add one more to that list: get your flu shot. Each and every year, the CDC recommends that every single person over six months in age get vaccinated against influenza. Millions of Americans take that advice and do so. This year, it’s more important than ever. We don’t know for sure what the fall and winter will bring in terms of the coronavirus, but we do know that with the flu shot, we can reduce the amount of respiratory illnesses among our communities and the number of beds needed to treat flu patients. Even more critically, by reducing flu hospitalizations, we also reduce the potentially lethal risk of contracting influenza and COVID-19 simultaneously.

Planned Parenthood takes our role as an essential health care provider seriously. Even as the coronavirus has limited some people’s access to care, we have worked to expand the services that we provide to better serve Ohioans. While family planning and reproductive health care will always be at the core of the work we do, we have long sought to be a reliable provider of primary care needs. For many of our patients, we might be their only health care provider. We take this role to heart, and are making a new step: we will be providing flu vaccinations at all of our family planning health centers across Ohio for the first time.

The unfortunate fact is that COVID-19 is not under control in Ohio. The recent downward trend in cases is promising, but as we move into the fall and winter, our medical infrastructure – the hospitals that treat coronavirus patients – cannot cope with a double whammy of flu and COVID-19 hospitalizations. 

Thankfully, they don’t have to. Do your part. Get a flu shot.