Flu season and COVID-19: Here’s how to avoid infections this fall

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SALT LAKE CITY — Doctors believe this flu season might be a severe one in the U.S. after Australia’s season just ended — and with it took 300 lives and caused 1,700 hospitalizations.

Kencee Graves, associate professor of internal medicine and chief medical officer for inpatient health at University of Utah Health, noted Utah didn’t see flu outbreaks over the past two years.

Australia — which the U.S. looks at for predicting what the states might see — saw a large increase this year in serious cases of the flu. In 2021, the country experienced no influenza deaths and just a handful of hospitalizations. But this season, the country saw a fivefold increase in serious cases and deaths, Graves said.

“That is what makes us in the U.S. a little concerned about how severe this flu season could be,” she said.

That makes this year an important one to get the flu vaccine. At the same time the coronavirus continues circulating in the community — though not at the levels it once did. Flu vaccination “is pretty predictable year to year,” Graves said. The vaccine does differ year-by-year based on what variant of the flu is circulating, but the timing “is always exactly the same.”

Doctors recommend people get the flu vaccine in September or October, before Halloween. The flu season begins in October and continues until March, according to Graves.

Flu vaccines are now available across the state.

It is OK to get the flu vaccine and COVID-19 vaccine at the same time, according to Graves. But if someone has had a severe vaccine response in the past, it might be wise to get the flu and COVID-19 vaccines at different times.

Current COVID-19 protection

A person’s primary series of the vaccine provides immunity to COVID-19, then follow-up boosters add to that immunity. The original boosters were targeted against the original strain of SARS-CoV-2, noted Dr. Hannah Imlay, assistant professor of internal medicine in the Division of Infectious Diseases at University of Utah Health.

But successive waves of different variants have swept across the world, she said, and vaccines don’t target them as well. They do protect against severe disease and death, she said. But the new bivalent booster targets current variants as well as the ancestral strain.

Booster vaccine availability can be found at vaccines.gov/search/.

People who had previous boosters “are quite well protected,” Imlay said, but immunity against any kind of COVID-19 infection “tends to wane after a few months.”

The new bivalent boosters are authorized to be taken at least two months after one’s most recent vaccine dose, regardless of how many boosters a person received, according to Imlay.

She said “spacing out” one’s vaccine doses and infection helps increase protection against the disease. If you’ve had a recent COVID-19 infection, it may be best to wait at least three months before receiving the bivalent booster.

“You’ve got a lot of immune priming from your infection, you get a lot of immune priming from your most recent vaccine dose, so wait some time before getting the bivalent booster,” Imlay said as a “general recommendation.”

But those who are immunocompromised, or who expect to attend a large event soon, may want to take the bivalent vaccine sooner.

Doctors don’t yet know how soon immunity wanes after the bivalent booster, but Imlay said they anticipate immunity could last between four and six months. When asked whether a person should get the vaccine before Halloween or Thanksgiving events, Imlay said she would receive a booster at least 10 days before a potential COVID-19 exposure event.

Mixing and matching vaccines is OK, Imlay said, urging people to get the vaccines that are available to them.

When asked whether she believes that the pandemic is over, Imlay emphasized that people continue to get COVID-19 — with an average of 70,000 new cases and 500 deaths each day in the U.S.

“That said, a lot of policy decisions and choices that we as a population have made has really transitioned this to being a large-scale public health response to a response that hopefully is more sustainable and kind of has turned to the endemic model,” she said, adding that the country will continue to see “high numbers of cases.”

The tools against the disease are now encouraged on more on a “personal” level of protection rather than a population level, Imlay added.

She said she suspects, based on modeling, the state will likely have another fall wave of the disease, but the bivalent booster could help prevent “immune escape” — which is when the virus has changed enough that it can evade people’s immunity.

×Ashley Imlay

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