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Guest Commentary: The importance of flu shots for all in the COVID-19 era

By Kathy Bridge-Liles - | Sep 30, 2020

Kathy Bridge-Liles

The race to develop a COVID-19 vaccine appears to be coming down the home stretch.

That would be great news for our health, our economy and our community.

While worldwide attention remains focused on that vaccine, flu season is quickly approaching in Southwest Florida. The potential for a one-two punch worries those in the medical community.

Although COVID-19 and the flu are completely different viruses, research shows the flu can weaken an individual’s immune system, and those with weakened immune systems are disproportionately impacted by COVID-19.

As a longtime nurse and hospital administrator, I speak from experience – every resident of Southwest Florida needs to prioritize a flu shot this fall, especially seniors, youth and those with underlying medical conditions who face an increased risk for severe illness from COVID-19.

COVID-19 made it clear how our own behaviors, like wearing a protective face mask and using hand sanitizer, can impact the health of those around us. Likewise, getting a flu shot also shows personal responsibility. Flu shots protect you from the virus, which then protects your family, your co-workers, your neighbors and your friends.

The flu has resulted in 9 million to 49 million illnesses each year in the U.S. over the past decade, according to estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. With 330 million people nationwide, that’s as much as 15% of the population being saddled with the flu each year!

The CDC encourages Americans to get flu shots before flu viruses begin spreading. Generally, our flu season in Southwest Florida coincides with tourist season, ramping up in October and peaking in January through March. That means now is the time to get your flu shots, but the CDC is concerned that COVID-19 has disrupted proactive medical care.

“Efforts to reduce the spread of COVID-19, such as stay-at-home and shelter-in-place orders, have led to decreased use of routine preventive medical services, including immunization services,” according to the CDC. “Ensuring that people continue or start getting routine vaccinations during the COVID-19 pandemic is essential for protecting people and communities from vaccine-preventable diseases and outbreaks, including flu. Routine vaccination prevents illnesses that lead to unnecessary medical visits and hospitalizations, which further strain the healthcare system.”

Local hospitals typically see a decline in hospitalizations during the summer as seasonal visitors and tourists spend their time elsewhere. However, this year was different. Lee Health and NCH both reported higher-than-normal summer bed capacity rates because of COVID-19. The rate of hospitalizations has since declined, but the numbers have brought an awareness to the possibility of running out of hospital beds during future outbreaks.

In addition to getting a flu shot this fall, medical experts also are urging people to take steps to strengthen their immune system. While there are many over-the-counter supplements, a healthy diet, hydration, regular exercise and ample sleep also offer natural remedies to maintain a strong immune system.

The CDC recommends that everyone 6 months and older receive an annual flu vaccine. A flu shot will not protect you against COVID-19. However, it will protect you against the flu, which helps protect the health of our community.

Kathy Bridge-Liles is the former Chief Administrative Officer at Golisano Children’s Hospital and a resident of Fort Myers. She is a District 5 candidate for Lee Health’s Board of Directors.