WHEN TO GET FLU SHOTS AND WHAT ABOUT THE UPDATED COVID VACCINE?
It’s getting close to flu season as well as a continuation of our new scourge, COVID-19
with its rapidly acquired variants.
There is a national plan to roll out updated Covid-19 boosters, and that will likely
coincide with the normal time to get a flu shot. So, when should we get the new
immunizations to provide ourselves with the best protection through our third Covid
It takes a few weeks after shots for our immune systems to be ready to face the
onslaught of these viruses. But if we get the flu shots too early, we may not be fully
protected when the power of the vaccine wanes as the flu season progresses.
Covid vaccine protection also wanes; its ability to block infection fades over months.
However, and even more important, the protection it generates against severe
outcomes is maintained for much longer. The reason for the updated shot is to match
more closely the forms of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that are circulating now — to prevent
more infections and to slow transmission during what could be another fall-winter cold-
After only two winters with SARS-2, experts don’t know when the virus might peak. As
effectively as it’s spread throughout this summer, it’s likely that it will spread even faster
during fall and winter when people are more likely to be closer to each other – and for
longer periods -- indoors.
The guessing continues, especially since efforts to mitigate COVID have thrown off the
regular behavior of other viruses. The past two flu seasons have been far less severe
because of the efforts to slow Covid. Perhaps because these efforts have largely been
lifted, Australia is currently in the midst of a severe flu season. What happens in
Australia can often portend what the U.S. season will look like.
Getting the immunization too long before exposure to a virus means it will have waned
in protective ability. Getting the vaccine too late allows the possibility of not having
protection established in time for an encounter with the virus.
Ed Belongia, the director of the Center for Clinical Epidemiology and Population Health
at the Marshfield Clinic Research Institute, said that flu vaccines lose about 8% of their
effectiveness each month. Again, there’s a balance. While October might be a better
time to get a flu shot than September, September is better than never — and this
applies to the Covid vaccine as well.
The Biden administration has signaled the updated COVID boosters could be available
in September, if the Food and Drug Administration and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention sign off on them. But it was only in late June that the FDA said the new
boosters should target the original form of the virus as well as the spike protein of the
BA.5 Omicron subvariant, the dominant lineage in the United States as of now. The US
Department of Health and Human Services recently announced that it had ordered 66
million doses of Moderna's bivalent booster candidate.
Health officials now have their eyes on a September start date, moving the date up
slightly from the early October start date, White House COVID-19 Response Team
Coordinator Dr. Ashish Jha said in a briefing earlier this month.
Whenever the modified vaccine (or vaccines) are authorized and recommended, people
who are more at risk for severe disease (including older adults and people with some
health conditions, for example) will likely become eligible first.
It’s challenging to deal with flu prevention; each year introduces new variants of flu.
Now we also need to protect against COVID-19. Similar to when the original Covid
boosters were authorized last fall, there is likely to be more reliance on pharmacies and
doctors’ offices and less on mass vaccination sites. Note, however, an added wrinkle is
that the updated shots are expected to be authorized only as boosters, whereas the
primary series of shots will still use the original formulation. If you haven’t yet been
vaccinated, you will have to start with the original formulation.
There are clearly uncertainties about what the COVID season will be like; when and
how high the virus will spike, and what variant will be dominant. The basic advice is: Get
your COVID vaccines when you can. The timing suggested by those who are most
knowledgeable indicates sometime during September and before Halloween.
Regardless of when you get your vaccines, the CDC continues to recommend testing
people who are symptomatic along with their close contacts and staying at home if
positive for up to 5 days and wearing a mask for up to 10 days. The CDC also
still recommends masking indoors. And whatever else you do to protect yourself
and others from the miseries of these viruses, keep washing your hands frequently.
Good handwashing is effective in preventing a plethora of other transmissible viruses
and infections – even without a pandemic to worry about. In fact, nearly 80% of
sickness-causing germs spread via the hands.