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One virus at a time: Pharmacies offer flu shots early, while virus threat looms

Experts say the recommended time to get a

Experts say the recommended time to get a flu vaccine to remain effective through the season is usually mid-September through late October, but doctors said the risk of not getting the shot, amid the COVID-19 crisis, is a more serious problem. Credit: Johnny Milano

Preparing for a double hit of COVID-19 and seasonal flu this fall, many large-chain pharmacies on Long Island are offering flu shots early even though experts say there is a chance it could make them less effective if the season runs long.

The recommended time to get a flu vaccine is usually mid-September through late October, experts said. Anything earlier could mean its protection — especially for older adults — could wane later in the flu season, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But some doctors said the risk of people not getting flu shots at all this year, and adding to a health care system already grappling with COVID-19, is a more serious problem than getting the shot a few weeks early.

“We don’t want one single extra case of flu making it harder for us to deal with COVID-19,” said Dr. Aaron E. Glatt, chair of medicine and chief of infectious diseases at Mount Sinai South Nassau hospital.

“While some have suggested that there is some concern that if you get a flu vaccine in August, you might not have protection from flu in April as the vaccine will have worn off, there’s no real evidence to support this," he said. "I don’t think that’s true in a normal year.”

Glatt said, for example, if someone has an annual physical in early September, it’s better to give them the vaccine at that time than hope they will return in a few weeks.

“We want to prevent any spread of flu early on,” he said.

Some of the symptoms from the influenza and COVID-19 viruses are similar, such as cough, fever and body aches — meaning people will need to be tested and possibly quarantined until results are available.

While Rite Aid, CVS and other chain pharmacies are offering the vaccine now, the elderly and people with underlying medical conditions should wait until the latter part of September or October to get a flu shot, said Dr. William Schaffner, medical director of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases and a professor in the division of infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University.

“Immunization in August is clearly early and we would discourage it, except in unusual circumstances,” Schaffner said.

Senior citizens need to consult with their doctors before deciding the best timing, said Dr. Fred Davis, co-chair of the Long Island Jewish Medical Center Emergency Department.

It’s wise to make plans for getting the shot in September and October, whether that means a visit to a primary care physician or going to a clinic, he said.

“Some people who have only been doing telemedicine because of COVID-19 may be concerned about being around too many people,” Davis said. “But doctors can space out appointments or set aside a day for flu shot clinics where people can be in and out of the office quickly.”

Meanwhile, people should wear face coverings, follow social distancing protocols and wash hands — measures that can help stem the spread of both COVID-19 and flu, he said.

Getting an annual flu vaccination is vitally important for everyone, starting with children 6 months of age and older, the CDC advises.

“We used to say ‘Flu Before Boo,’ meaning get the flu vaccine before Halloween,” said Dr. Christina Johns, a pediatrician and senior medical adviser at PM Pediatrics. “In general, the optimum guideline is between Labor Day and Halloween.”

Even if parents miss that window, it is not too late to get kids vaccinated in the following months, she said.

It’s too soon to know what this year’s flu season holds, experts said.

The CDC said flu vaccine manufacturers have projected providing a record number of doses this year — 194 million to 198 million doses, up from last season’s 175 million.

Officials said this year’s vaccines were designed to be effective against several strains of Flu A and Flu B that are expected to circulate this season.

Even if you get the flu, being vaccinated will make your illness less severe, making it less likely you will be hospitalized or even die, Schaffner said.

Last year, about 40% of the U.S. population received a flu vaccine, he said.

“That means 60% didn’t,” he said. “So we have a long way to go.”