MANKATO — The looming overlap of influenza season and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has area doctors stressing the importance of flu vaccinations as a way to keep health systems from getting overloaded.
COVID-19 cases were first confirmed in Minnesota in March. Its emergence during the tail end of flu season meant there wasn’t as much overlap as there’s likely to be for the rest of 2020 into spring 2021.
Mankato doctors who are concerned about the overlap say the flu vaccine will be especially important this year to ease the burden on clinics and hospitals.
“In a year like this when we’re dealing with COVID as well, potentially a surge of influenza and COVID at the same time could cause problems for our health care system,” said Dr. Jennifer Johnson, family medicine physician at Mayo Clinic Health System in Mankato.
Despite being more deadly than the flu, COVID-19 can cause similar symptoms. Dr. John Benson, family medicine physician at Mankato Clinic, said “our hands will be full” with people experiencing the symptoms this fall, so flu vaccinations can help.
“If more people get vaccinated, then hopefully our respiratory clinic won’t be so full of influenza patients and we can deal with COVID patients,” he said.
In stressing the importance of immunizations, doctors are having to contend with anti-vaccination misinformation spread online. Posts falsely linking vaccines to autism and other conditions persist online.
Anti-vax propaganda even recently popped up on a billboard in Rochester near Mayo Clinic. The digital billboard displayed the words “death by vaccines has no age limit” along with pictures of two children and links to websites alleging vaccines caused their deaths.
The first claim is about a 15-year-old boy who died of acute disseminated encephalomyelitis, or ADEM, weeks after receiving an HPV vaccine. His family blamed the death on the vaccine, but several large studies have found no link between the HPV vaccine and ADEM.
One of the studies, a 2016 one published in the Clinical Infectious Disease journal, found a possible association between another vaccine for tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis, or Tdap, and ADEM. Any link was extremely rare, however, with the excess risk deemed to be about one ADEM case for every 1 million Tdap vaccines.
The second claim involves a 6-month-old girl from Buffalo, Minnesota, who died while sleeping in her mother’s bed. Her mother pinned the death on the routine six-month vaccinations the baby received about 36 hours earlier.
But the medical examiner reported two other causes of the accidental death: positional asphyxia and co-sleeping on an adult bed. Positional asphyxia means the position the baby was in prevented her from breathing.
Apart from skepticism about existing vaccines, any eventual COVID-19 vaccine’s effectiveness will depend on enough people believing it to be safe. Health experts could have their work cut out for them if recent polls are any indication.
A Kaiser Family Foundation tracking poll this month found 62% of respondents worried “political pressure from the Trump administration will lead the FDA to rush to approve a coronavirus vaccine without making sure it is safe and effective.” Only 42% said they’d want to get a vaccine before the November election.
Any potential vaccine against COVID is still a ways away from being widely available. The focus now is more on vaccines already in existence, such as annual influenza immunizations.
Benson said what concerns him ahead of flu season is “nonscientific people” spreading false information about flu shots increasing your risk for COVID. The reality is the exact opposite.
“Whenever you get sick with something like influenza, it’ll weaken your immune system and increase your risk for other infections,” he said. “And the biggest infection we’re worried about right now is COVID.”
Johnson has heard patients worry about flu vaccines giving them the flu because they had a fever or soreness afterward. The side effects aren’t the disease, she said, but rather an immune system response to the vaccine.
Patients shouldn’t hesitate to talk to their doctors about any vaccine concerns, she added.
“Especially if they saw something online, I’d encourage patients if they see something to discuss it with your doctor,” Johnson said. “Discuss that with us so we can help understand your concerns as a patient and help you determine what’s the best course for you.”
Doctors can share the benefits of vaccines along with any potential risks, Benson said, but it’s ultimately up to the patient to decide.
“By and large, most of my patients end up getting vaccines,” he said.
Johnson and Benson encouraged people to seek flu vaccines in either September or October because it can take a couple of weeks before it’ll provide any protection. Pharmacies are often the first place offering flu vaccines, while clinics start providing them to patients shortly after.
Even with a vaccine, Minnesota’s worst six-month influenza season during the last 10 seasons resulted in 435 Minnesotans dying in 2017-2018. COVID-19 has so far caused 1,927 deaths in fewer than six months.