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Why Virginia doctors say it's crucial to get a flu shot this season

Americans encouraged to get flu shot as US prepares to battle both flu and COVID-19
Posted at 10:19 PM, Dec 01, 2021
and last updated 2021-12-01 23:25:03-05

RICHMOND, Va. -- With a winter COVID surge likely on the way and the first omicron variant case now detected in the U.S., Virginia health officials are also keeping a close eye on another virus.

"We should absolutely be expecting to see more of a flu season this year," said Dr. Melissa Viray, Deputy Director for the Richmond and Henrico Health Districts.

A graph from the Virginia Department of Health compared this season to last showed a higher rate of flu cases circulating in the state than at the same time last year.

Dr. Viray said that was because last year there was virtually no flu activity. Even so far this season, cases were still relatively low and considered 'sporadic' in the state.

But despite that, Dr. Viray said this year in particular, people should consider getting a flu shot.

"There are some who speculate that because we kind of skipped the flu season that we just haven't. Our bodies, our communities, haven't had the same sort of exposure to flu that we normally see every year," Dr. Viray said.

She said doctors didn’t know if the lack of flu season last year might predispose the community to more severe illness this year.

"We don't know that yet. But we might," said Dr. Viray.

She said another concern was the combination of the flu virus and the likely surge in COVID cases during the winter months.

"COVID has complicated everything right?" Dr. Viray said. "I can't tell you what it's going to look like to have flu and COVID at the same time or flu then COVID. You know, if that's going to mean that your body may not respond as well, if you may have a more severe disease. I think we may know more than we want to know about that after this season."

Dr. Viray said locally, and across the country, there had been an uptick in the H3N2 flu strain, particularly in children and young adults. She said that was something families should think about as their kids came home from college and school for the holidays.

"It's even more important that you take all, as many steps as possible, not just for COVID, but also for influenza, to keep everybody safe," Dr. Viray said.

Dr. Richard Wenzel, Infectious Disease Epidemiologist at VCU said with the omicron variant now in the U.S., and a potential uptick in COVID and flu cases amid the winter months, the goal was to keep from overwhelming hospitals.

"Hospitals already in the upper Midwest, where it's cold, and some parts of New England are already overwhelmed. They're packed already," said Dr. Wenzel. "It doesn't take much to push the system really to an exhaustive category."

Dr. Wenzel said the best way to prevent that from happening was through vaccines. Although he said at this point, doctors were not certain how effective the COVID vaccines are against the Omicron variant.

"There's a whole lot of mutations, including right at the spike," said Dr. Wenzel. "With the vaccine, we're making antibodies to the spike. But if the spike changes, those antibodies that we had for yesterday's spike, are not going to be effective for tomorrow's spike. So that's the concern."

However, Dr. Wenzel said it was likely that COVID vaccines would at least offer some protection against the Omicron Variant.

"I don't like to predict, but based on what we've seen so far, that we'll at least get some protection and maybe a fair amount of protection against severe disease, but maybe less so for mild or moderate. So again, getting the COVID vaccine can't be emphasized enough," said Dr. Wenzel.

Dr. Viray said it was safe to get both the flu shot and a COVID vaccine at the same time.