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After virtually disappearing for two years in the United States as the COVID-19 pandemic crippled society, there are hints the flu could reemerge this fall, potentially prompting an unusually early and possibly severe flu season.
As a result, many experts are urging people to get the flu shot immediately to ensure they are protected. But is this the best time?
It depends on the expert you talk to and, perhaps, your age and your particular situation.
“It’s time to get your flu shot now,” advises Dr. William Schaffner, professor of infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University.
“People should be getting them now,” agrees Shaun Truelove, an assistant scientist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, who is helping lead a new effort to project this year’s flu season for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The usual flu season begins in November in the United States and peaks in January or February. “In normal years, it makes sense to delay the flu shot until late fall because protection really doesn’t last more than a few months and late fall/winter is the time where the flu wave usually hits here,” says Deepta Bhattacharya, an immunologist at the University of Arizona College of Medicine. “So in a normal year, I would probably try to wait until mid-October and get the flu shot,” he says. But this year, he says, “flu cases are already starting to rise, so it makes sense to catch it earlier, which is now.”
Why the flu could come back strong this year
The reason experts are particularly concerned about the flu this year is that many people, especially very young children, may have little or no immunity to respiratory infection because masking, social distancing and other behaviors aimed at protecting against COVID have curbed the spread of the flu, too. Also, the CDC notes, young children would do well to get a quick flu shot because they need two shots a month apart and it takes time to develop immunity.
Because the protection that flu vaccination provides for older adults tends to wane faster than for other adults, many experts advise against getting the flu shot for this group. too early – but a now is fine.
“For older people, I wouldn’t recommend vaccination until September at the earliest, because immunity can wane. I tend to get vaccinated in October,” says Dr. Walter Orenstein, a vaccine specialist at the University. Emory who previously worked at the CDC.
Australia warning signs
Many other adults have another reason to get a flu shot sooner rather than later: flu season hit early and hard in some southern hemisphere countries (like Australia) last winter. And what happens during the winter south of the equator often foreshadows what will happen in the northern hemisphere.
“So getting vaccinated earlier is definitely a good idea,” Truelove says.
Still, some experts say they plan to wait several more weeks to get vaccinated.
“I’ll have mine in November,” says John Moore, immunologist at Weil Cornell Medicine. “Protection from flu shots is usually weak and short-lived,” he notes, “so getting vaccinated too soon offers too little protection when the virus is actually circulating. And it’s not now.” We are not yet in “flu season”.
Others say adults could reasonably wait until it looks like cases in their area are increasing.
“I would say it’s best to keep an eye out for flu activity in your area,” says Jeremy Kamil, an immunologist at Louisiana State University. “Ideally, we would want to match our boost to give us optimal levels of immunity when the virus is actually on the rise.”
Don’t wait too long. Because the flu often starts to hit hard around the time people travel and gather for Thanksgiving, the National Infectious Disease Foundation encourages people to “make sure they’re vaccinated before Halloween,” says Patsy Stinchfield, president of the foundation. “It takes about two or three weeks for the antibodies to rise high enough to be protective.”
Ultimately, exactly when you get your flu shot in the next month doesn’t matter as much as whether you get one, flu experts agree, especially this year. Truelove’s group estimates that, in a worst-case scenario, the flu could hospitalize up to 560,000 people in the United States this year and kill up to 63,000.
“A vaccine delayed is often a vaccine not received,” says Schaffner. “You have to have the discipline to be sure to get vaccinated.”
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