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No one knows what to expect of this year's flu season. Last year influenza virtually disappeared, in large part because of widespread adherence to COVID safety measures – social distancing, mask-wearing and hand washing. But the nature of the flu – a notoriously difficult disease to predict – as well as uncertainty around how a pandemic-weary nation will exercise caution this fall, make it impossible to know what lies ahead.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend that, with rare exceptions, everyone 6 months and older get a flu vaccine every season. Public health experts say vaccination is vital to protect individuals, communities and to avoid burdening already overtaxed health care systems.
"The big risk here is that our healthcare system has limited capacity. In the winter, it usually hits that capacity in many places absent COVID, and flu is often a big contributor," Dan Salmon, director of the Institute for Vaccine Safety and a professor in the Department of International Health at Hopkins University said during a press briefing Wednesday. "I'm not going to try to tell you what will happen in the fall, but what I will say is that we have really good vaccines for COVID. We have reasonably good vaccines for flu. We should use them both as widely as possible and hope that we don't see co-pandemics that make things worse."
USA TODAY spoke with Stephen Fadowole, a Walgreens pharmacist based in Chicago, and Linda Molaka, a CVS pharmacy manager based in Pembroke Pines, Florida, on what people need to know about the flu shot this year.
Question: When is the ideal time to get the flu shot?
Stephen Fadowole: Now is a great time to get your flu shot. The CDC recommends annual flu shots for everyone over 6 months of age before flu begins circulating in communities and by the end of October to help reduce spread of flu. It takes about two weeks after the vaccine for antibodies to develop in the body and provide protection against the flu.
Linda Molaka: Peak flu season is generally from December through February, so that's why the end of October is a critical time. It's important to make sure you get your shot by then. But we actually do begin vaccinating patients as soon as the flu shot comes in, which is in August.
Q: Can I get my flu shot too early?
Fadowole: The CDC says that July or August may be too early to get your flu vaccine to ensure you get adequate protection for the entire season. However, if there’s a chance you may miss out on getting your flu shot, it’s better to get it a little early than not at all.
Molaka: It's fine to get the flu shot anytime after the pharmacies begin offering them.
Q: What happens if I get the flu shot too late?
Fadowole: The risk of getting your flu shot too late is getting infected with flu before you’re protected. It’s also important to remember that it takes two weeks after the vaccine for antibodies to develop in the body and provide protection against the flu.
Molaka: As long as the virus is circulating, you'll need protection. There's never really a too-late time, but of course you want the protection as early as possible.
Q: If a COVID booster is authorized, can I get the flu shot at the same time?
Molaka: The CDC allows us to give multiple vaccines at the same time. So you can get your flu shot. You can get your booster. You can get your first dose, second dose or additional dose with the flu shot. We are able to give them at the same time. There's no waiting period.
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Q: If I get them at the same time, will I potentially have more side effects?
Fadowole: According to the CDC, side effects of vaccines are generally the same when given alone or with other vaccines. Side effects vary by individual.
Molaka: The side effects that we have are generally mild and last for one to two days. Developing them is a sign that you're building immunity.
Q: Is there anything else that is important for people to know?
Fadowole: As communities return to everyday activities amid a surge in COVID-19 cases, it is critical that people remain diligent about getting their flu vaccine to help reduce the spread of a vaccine-preventable illness.
Molaka: There are myths we have to debunk. People always say, 'Oh, I got the flu shot and I got the flu.' The flu shot won't give the flu. In these pandemic times, we want to save healthcare resources and not burden the healthcare workers with something that is easily preventable. We want to minimize hospitalization. We want to minimize deaths. We need to get the shot to minimize the impact on healthcare resources, to keep the community healthy, to keep our families healthy."
Q: How are pharmacists preparing for the influx of people getting their flu shot and COVID vaccines?
Walgreens has enhanced its online scheduler so when patients schedule a flu or COVID-19 vaccine appointment, they are asked if they would like to get additional vaccines.
Pharmacy team members can administer flu vaccines to children ages 3 and up.
Walgreens is actively hiring more pharmacists and pharmacy technicians.
CVS has optimized digital intake so you can make your appointment online, answer all consent forms ahead of time and decrease touchpoints to get you in and out.
CVS is actively hiring and says it is prepared to meet the demand.
All of CVS' roughly 1,000 MinuteClinic locations vaccinate ages 18 months and above for the flu. At the Pharmacy, it varies by state, but many can vaccinate ages 3 and older.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: COVID boosters and flu shots: When to get the vaccines, what to know