COVID-19 adds urgency, importance to this year's vaccination campaign
(VOORHEES, N.J.) This week, Virtua Health will begin providing flu shots to its employees and, soon, to the wider community. In support of social distancing, many flu shots will be provided in tented, outdoor areas at Virtua sites across Burlington, Camden, and Gloucester counties.
"We strongly recommend that everyone get a flu shot to ensure that, as a community, we are as protected as possible," said Martin Topiel, MD, head of infectious diseases and chief of infection prevention at Virtua Health, South Jersey's largest health system.
Seeking to lead by example, Virtua is launching a months-long campaign to ensure its employees receive the flu vaccine by October 20.
"As caregivers, we must protect ourselves and remain as healthy as possible in order to do our jobs," Dr. Topiel said. "COVID-19 is a big enough challenge on its own, and our frontline workers have already sacrificed so much. That is why I ask that everyone does their part to help ensure this flu season is as manageable as possible."
The flu is a serious illness that spreads easily among unvaccinated people. In recent years, fewer than half of adults got the flu shot, and the flu sickened millions of Americans. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that the flu caused 490,600 hospitalizations and 34,200 deaths during the 2018-19 influenza season.
If both flu and COVID-19 cases spike, the health care system could become overwhelmed. It is also possible that a person could contract both viruses, which would likely result in more severe illness.
Flu vs. COVID-19
"This year is unique," added Samuel Weiner, MD, a medical director with Virtua Medical Group. "In the past, if you had the flu, you could rest for a few days, then go back to work or school once you started feeling better. The recommended self-isolation period is longer for COVID-19, so unless you get tested, you may have to stay home for an extended period."
Indeed, flu and COVID-19 can be hard to tell apart. The main differences, typically: flu comes on quickly, usually with a high fever. COVID-19 tends to develop more gradually and usually brings a dry cough. It often causes a fever, but not always.
Both the flu and COVID-19 (like any virus) can temporarily weaken your immune system, making you more vulnerable to severe illness or secondary bacterial infections. This is especially true for older adults and people with chronic health conditions – groups that are more likely to be hospitalized due to the flu.
The CDC recommends that everyone ages 6 months and older receive a flu shot each year, ideally by the end of October. The vaccine offers the best defense against flu and its potentially serious consequences. It also can reduce the spread of flu to others.
"Unlike COVID-19, which is caused by a new strain of virus, scientists and researchers have studied influenza for many decades," Dr. Topiel said. "The medical community has ample data on the effectiveness – and importance – of the flu vaccine."
Where to get the flu shot
Virtua will offer flu shots to its primary care patients at its 27 primary care locations by mid-September. (New patients must schedule a wellness visit and can receive a flu shot in conjunction with that appointment.) Most health insurance plans cover the full cost of the vaccine, so the shot is usually free to patients. Appointments are required. To schedule a flu shot, call 888-VIRTUA-3.
Dr. Weiner recommends that patients catch up on other vaccines or health needs when they come in for their flu shot. For example, people 65 and older who have never had a pneumonia vaccine should receive one when they get their flu vaccine, he says.
In addition, the Virtua Pediatric Mobile Services Program will soon provide free flu shots to children in underserved neighborhoods across Burlington, Camden, and Gloucester counties. (This mobile clinic offers care-on-wheels year-round.)
"Children are among the more vulnerable members of our society," said Maria Emerson, director of Virtua’s Pediatric Mobile Program. "We want to remove the barriers that prevent children from receiving basic-but-vital care, so we bring flu shots to them at libraries, schools, community centers, and places of worship."
Click here to view the Virtua Pediatric Mobile Services monthly calendar or learn more at 609-304-0151.