STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. — Medical experts predict a severe flu season this year, and are urging residents to get the flu and coronavirus (COVID-19) vaccines to avoid a medical-care crisis.
A surge in flu cases would put extreme stress on the health-care system, since currently about 69,000 Americans are hospitalized with COVID-19, according to the Department of Health and Human Services.
On Staten Island, the current coronavirus positivity rate is reported to be below 2%, and case numbers are dropping. Yet physicians fear an upturn in the numbers of both flu and COVID as winter approaches and people begin to gather more indoors.
“We’re highly recommending it [the flu shot], just because it would be horrific if we had a flu season and a COVID season together,” said Dr. Theodore Strange, chairman of medicine at Staten Island University Hospital. “There would be no place to take care of patients.”
Last year’s flu season produced an extraordinarily low number of cases, largely because people were wearing masks and socially distancing amid a raging coronavirus pandemic.
That resulted in reduced population-level immunity this year, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), explained during a White House press briefing on Wednesday. She noted that many hospitals and intensive care units across the country are currently at full capacity.
Each year in the United States, influenza can potentially claim between 12,000 and 52,000 lives, and results in 140,000 to 710,000 hospitalizations — a toll we need to work hard to avoid, Walenski said.
The CDC recommends flu vaccination for anyone who is 6 months or older, especially those of any age who have chronic health conditions, such as asthma, heart disease, or diabetes; and children, especially under 5, who are at risk of severe complications from the flu.
Those who have yet to be vaccinated for COVID-19 can confidently roll up their sleeves and receive both vaccines at the same time, Strange said.
“It’s totally safe to get them at the same time,’’ she said, noting that it’s even safe to get both vaccines in the same arm, 10 millimeters apart.
This composition of the flu vaccine changes from year to year as needed to match circulating flu viruses, which mutate and change from season to season.
This season, all flu vaccines are “quadrivalent” vaccines, which means they protect against four different flu viruses — an influenza A(H1N1) virus, an influenza A(H3N2) virus, and two influenza B viruses, according to the CDC.
They work by causing antibodies to develop in the body about two weeks after vaccination. These antibodies provide protection against infection with circulating influenza viruses.
A PLEA TO GET VACCINATED
Ideally, everyone should be vaccinated by the end of October, the CDC says.
The good news this year is that many people are still wearing a mask indoors and practicing social distancing, Strange said. “That may help us a little bit. But we still need to get people vaccinated.’’
The vaccine does not contain a live virus, Strange said.
“It’s safe; It is not a live protein. It does not cause the flu,’’ he explained.
It’s also free, he said, and can be received at most pharmacies, many without an appointment.
Strange urged those who are hesitant to receive either vaccine to turn their thoughts to others.
“The flu shot is not just about you,’’ Strange said. “The flu shot is about everyone around you. Why would you even want to think about potentially spreading it to family and friends?”
Getting vaccinated against flu and against COVID-19 is the best way for people stay healthy, protecting themselves, their loved ones and their communities, Walensky said.
“We have rights, I get it,’’ Strange said. “But we also have responsibilities, and it’s about balancing both. Just like COVID, flu is not political. It is a medical disease.’’