We’ve skipped out on more than a full flu season. That’s because COVID precautions, including social distancing, stay at home orders, masks, and handwashing, stopped the flu in its tracks. But it’s back and, unfortunately, may be back with a vengeance.
We fear that the coming flu season might be worse than normal because the longer people go without being exposed to the flu virus, the more severe their symptoms tend to be. In a normal year, most of us are exposed in some way to the flu at some point, though it may only be in a small amount. Some will get sick and others may fight off low levels of the virus without getting sick. Scientists believe that this repeated exposure keeps up our immune defenses, which makes us better at fighting the flu.
But there has been almost no flu at all in the past year and a half, and our immune systems may have relaxed their defenses after going so long without exposure to the flu virus. And to make things worse, those who go longer without exposure to the virus tend to be more symptomatic, and those who are more symptomatic tend to spread the virus more because they’re coughing and sneezing virus particles into the air around them.
Unfortunately, you can actually get both the flu and COVID at the same time, and the consequences are dire. People who contract both are at much higher risk for hospitalization and death.
And while we’ve seen hospitals recover from the height of the COVID surge, there are still places in the US that are overwhelmed right now from outbreaks, partly due to the more transmissible Delta variant. Arkansas, which has a vaccination rate under 35%, is seeing hospitals overrun and patients turned away even as the country reopens and people return to normal travel for the summer. Unless the US gets its vaccination rate up quickly, we may be at risk of facing another “twindemic” of the flu and COVID, and risk overwhelming our healthcare systems again.
The good news is that there’s an easy way to prevent severe illness from both diseases - by getting your flu shot and your COVID vaccine.
COVID vaccines are readily available throughout the US right now, usually with no wait and no appointment needed. Flu shots will be available as early as September - and you should get one as soon as you can.
Some good news: if you haven’t yet had a COVID vaccine, you can get your flu and COVID shots at the same time. And if boosters are available and required by the fall, you’ll be able to get those at the same time as your flu shot, as well. In fact, the major manufacturers are working on a combined flu and COVID shot which will likely be available for next year’s flu season and may be the annual norm for a while.
You can get started this summer to hit the ground running in the fall.
Communicate early and often about flu season and the importance of getting a flu shot. Perhaps even more critical is emphasizing and modeling that everyone (we’re looking at you, managers!) stays home when they’re sick. Daily wellness checks are an effective way to keep sick folks out of work. Even if you’re moving away from daily wellness checks for all employees, you can always reinstate daily wellness checks in specific locations with outbreaks.
What works to prevent COVID works to stop the flu and other viruses, too, including masks and hand hygiene. Like wellness checks, you may even consider temporarily requiring masks in locations where there is flu circulating.
Assign someone from your internal communications team to work on flu communications. You can repurpose many of your COVID messages because our tools to fight both viruses are the same.
Ultimately the best way to encourage vaccination is to plan an on-site flu vaccination clinic. Research shows that employees are much more likely to get a flu shot when it’s available easily at their workplace. For workplaces where an on-site clinic isn’t feasible, or for those who aren’t available the day of the clinic, organize vouchers for convenient local pharmacies. Consider offering paid time for employees to go get their flu shots, which is also proven to increase a worker’s likelihood of getting vaccinated. You may get the added benefit of increasing COVID vaccination rates at the same time, since we expect most flu clinics will have some doses of COVID vaccine for anyone who wants them by the fall.
Call Zero Hour Health + Zedic if you need support in planning your flu prevention action plan. We can help with everything from toggling between sick calls and wellness checks to organizing on-site flu shots and pharmacy vouchers. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or chat in the Zedic app for support.