Health care professionals recommend flu vaccinations during the coronavirus pandemic

With the spread of COVID-19, Johnson County Public Health, University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics, and Student Health recommend people get their flu vaccinations as soon as possible.


Katie Goodale

Photo Illustration by Katie Goodale

Lillian Poulsen, News Reporter

Health-care professionals are urging people to get their flu vaccines as soon as possible in preparation for the flu season, with added concern stemming from ongoing pandemic.

With the prevalence of COVID-19, health-care providers are working to stop the spread of the flu, another illness that is spread through respiratory droplets.

The coronavirus and influenza share many of the same symptoms, said Mike Brownlee, University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics chief pharmacy officer. He said patients who contract either illness can experience fever, chills, a cough, shortness of breath, and muscle aches.

Jennifer Miller, Johnson County Public Health Disease Prevention Specialist, added that the distinguishing symptom of COVID-19 from the flu is a patient’s loss of taste and smell. Another difference between the two illnesses is the incubation period, which is two to 14 days for the coronavirus and only one to four days for the flu.

Lisa James, assistant director of quality improvement and strategic communications for UI Student Health, said people should get their flu vaccine in September or October. She said the first cases on campus usually occur around Thanksgiving.

Miller said it is never too late to get a flu vaccine, so people can get one as long as the flu is circulating in the community. Flu season usually ends around April, Brownlee said.

Related: University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics seeing sicker patients

He added that one of the reasons it is important to get a flu vaccine is to protect the community from the spread of the virus, especially for people who have underlying health conditions.

“It’s important to get your flu shot to protect yourself, to protect your family, and to protect your community while COVID-19 is also an active infection that’s circulating in the community.” Brownlee said. “We want to make sure as we’re looking at the safety of our patients that they’re not facing potential or serious infection with flu and COVID-19 at the same time.”

The pharmacy expert also said it is important to get the flu vaccine sooner in preparation for the COVID-19 vaccine that they expect in a few months. He said it usually takes a couple of weeks for a person to build an immunity against the virus.

“This year I think it’s more important than ever to get the flu vaccination early enough and to make sure the immunity lasts through the entire season,” Brownlee said. “As we look forward to the COVID-19 vaccine, we want to make sure there’s some time separating the flu vaccine and the COVID-19 vaccine.”

The UI is one of about 120 trial sites worldwide for a COVID-19 vaccine developed by drug manufacturing company Pfizer.

Another reason why it is important to get vaccinated is because it helps reduce the amount of people who need medical attention.

“From a hospital perspective, having there be more broad spread flu vaccination will actually help us take care of more patients,” Brownlee said. “If there are less people coming to the hospital with the flu, it allows us to enhance our services for the people who either have COVID or have serious health concerns.”

Miller said that exposure to the flu can make people more susceptible to the coronavirus.

Related: UIHC Respiratory Illness Follow-Up Clinic helps patients with ongoing effects of COVID-19

“If you’ve already put a strain on your immune system or caused some irritation to your respiratory tract, it could put you more at risk for COVID-19,” Miller said. “By protecting yourself from the flu, you could avoid needing emergent care if it becomes more scarce in the future.”

James said contracting both illnesses can cause serious strains on a patient’s body.

“You could become ill with influenza and COVID-19, which would be an extraordinary stress on your respiratory system and ability to recover,” James said. “Both illnesses can be severe and cause death, even in healthy young people.

Brownlee recommends people continue to follow healthy practices that can prevent the spread of both respiratory illnesses.

There are multiple locations offering flu vaccines in Johnson County. Miller said she recommends people contact their medical provider, the nurse line at UIHC or Mercy Hospital, Student Health, or their local pharmacy.

No matter how people plan to get their flu shots, the medical experts agreed that it’s important to make health-care decisions as soon as possible to protect the community from another pandemic.

“Even for folks who haven’t been big proponents of flu shots, we would really suggest that they consider it this year,” Miller said. “In terms of predicting how the flu season will play out, we urge the public to air on the side of caution.”