The Experts Weigh in on the 2020-21 Flu Season
Wegmans Pharmacy has taken a number of steps to help keep everyone safe this flu season,
including additional PPE for pharmacists while administering flu shots.
What do people need to know about this year’s flu season?
Cushman: Because we never know how the flu season will turn out until we’re halfway through, it’s important to get vaccinated early to best protect yourself and others. We all know COVID-19 is here, and it’s really hard to differentiate between the two with the symptoms being much the same. Every year, tens of thousands of people die from the flu, and hundreds of thousands more are hospitalized. Unfortunately, for COVID-19, the numbers are far worse. The biggest difference? We have a vaccination that can help protect against flu illness and death. We don’t (yet) for COVID. The Flu vaccine won’t protect against COVID-19, but it’s more important than ever for people to get vaccinated, not only to reduce the risk of illness, but also to lessen the burden on our healthcare system at a time when there’s a potential for those resources to be scarce.
When is the ideal time for people to get a flu shot?
Cushman: As soon as possible. As a colleague of mine says, “flu before you boo!” It takes about two weeks following vaccination for the body to provide protection against the flu virus, so for maximum protection, you want to get vaccinated before flu activity starts. Receiving the vaccine by the end of October will protect you early on and keep you protected for the length of the flu season. If you miss that window, it’s ok. We still recommend getting one – it’s never too late in the season to get vaccinated.
With COVID-19 and influenza circulating at the same time, what is the best way to tell them apart?
Cushman: COVID-19 and the flu share many of the same symptoms that present at varying degrees of severity, from fever, cough, and shortness of breath, to fatigue and body aches, which makes it difficult to diagnose the cause based solely on the signs and symptoms. If you get your flu shot, you decrease your risk of illness from the flu virus, and even if you do get the flu, your symptoms are likely to be less severe. If you experience any of these symptoms, the most important thing you can do is isolate from others. Don’t go to work. Don’t visit elderly family members. Stop the spread and contact your healthcare provider to review your symptoms and determine the next, best course of action.
What would you say to someone who’s nervous about venturing out for a flu shot because they are at higher risk of COVID-19?
Cushman: The benefit of vaccination far outweighs the risk. There are a number of things you can do to minimize your risk when going out for a flu shot, or any other reason – wear a mask, use hand sanitizer, avoid touching your face, and wash your hands when you get home. Additionally, doctors’ offices and pharmacies have all put additional safety measures into place to help keep patients, customers, and employees safe.
What additional safety measures has Wegmans put into place for administering the flu vaccine?
Cairns: The health and safety of our customers and our pharmacists has always been a priority for us, but this year, we’ve put a number of additional safety measures into place, as well as expanded our approach to administering the flu vaccine. You’ll see our pharmacists wearing additional PPE when administering a flu shot. They’ll of course be wearing masks, but also face shields or safety glasses, and gloves. We also made changes to improve our check-in and paperwork process to help minimize the number of touchpoints. At all our pharmacies, we are offering dedicated time slots for seniors to receive their flu shot. The hours vary by location, but can be found on our website. Finally, we are offering a number of outdoor and drive-thru flu clinics to make getting a flu shot easily accessible.
Are there any concerns about flu vaccine availability?
Cairns: Overall, we feel good about the general availability of the standard quad vaccine, as well as what we’ve been able to secure. We’re seeing some manufacturer delays with the high-dose vaccine for seniors, however our pharmacies continue to receive shipments. We recommend customers call their preferred pharmacy to verify availability. If it isn’t on hand, our pharmacy teams are educating customers, letting them know when it may be available and offering the standard quad vaccine as an immediate alternative.
We knew this was going to be a very unique flu season with coronavirus circulating at the same time. Anticipating there would be a need for community flu clinics, and that more people would be looking for ways to protect themselves, we secured higher amounts of the vaccine in order to best address the need.
Once available, will Wegmans pharmacists be able to administer a COVID-19 vaccine?
Cairns: There are a lot of unknowns around a vaccine for COVID-19, and how it will be distributed and administered is one of them. Generally speaking, making vaccinations available at pharmacies increases their accessibility, and that is extremely important to the success of any vaccine, including COVID-19. While we aren’t entirely sure what will be available to us, we approached the 2020-21 flu season as an opportunity to do everything we can to prepare and perfect a process that would allow us to administer the COVID vaccine in an easily accessible, safe, secure, and efficient way. This was a motivating factor in our decision to offer outdoor and drive-thru flu clinics, as we see this as being a great way to meet the community needs once a COVID vaccine is available.
For more information about the 2020-21 flu season, visit CDC.gov
Dr. Jeremy Cushman is one of several medical experts who advise Wegmans Food Markets on a variety of topics.