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Opinion: Get your vaccines and wear a mask; how to survive flu season during COVID-19

Mark Hamed and Pamela Rockwell

The arrival of fall means back to school and the kickoff of seasonal sports. While these activities may look different in different communities due to the COVID-19 pandemic, precautions are being implemented so they can move forward as safely as possible. A strong focus on health and prevention is essential for all Michiganders and needs to be held as a top priority as we head into the cold and flu season. Flu season typically starts late fall/early winter and results in increased sickness in the community with increased hospitalizations with severe outcomes, including death, for some individuals.

Everyone needs to get caught up on essential recommended immunizations, the author write.

The ongoing threat of COVID-19 doesn’t mean that we should worry less about preventing common colds and flu. In fact, we need to do more to take every precaution to protect ourselves against the spread of all viruses this fall and winter, including COVID-19. Experts agree that the COVID-19 vaccine will not be available to the general public before or during this upcoming flu season. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Family Physicians recommend that everyone 6 months and older get the seasonal influenza (flu) vaccine ideally by the end of October.

The flu vaccine has more than a half-century history of safely and effectively preventing many strains of the flu, and it keeps many people out of the hospital due to flu-related illnesses. An estimated 3.2 million Michigan residents received a flu vaccine last year, but that number needs to be much higher to protect all of us this season. Expert opinion warns that co-infection with influenza and COVID-19 may result in devastating health outcomes for many, and our healthcare system is at risk of becoming overwhelmed should influenza and COVID-19 infections coincide. Therefore, it is especially important this year to avoid preventable diseases such as the flu, so that resources can remain focused on fighting the ongoing pandemic.

Michigan Academy of Family Physicians, representing more than 4,200 family physicians across our state, has joined the “Spread Hope, Not COVID” public education campaign to encourage Michigan residents to help save lives by uniting to prevent the spread of infection.

Through vaccination against influenza, and compliance with CDC guidelines that recommend you wear masks, adhere to social distancing guidelines, wash your hands frequently and avoid touching your face/eyes, we can greatly reduce the spread of COVID-19 as well as common cold and flu viruses. Dr. Anthony Fauci recommends “we need to hunker down” this fall and winter to avoid another devastating wave of COVID-19 infections along with expected influenza infections during this upcoming cold and flu season.

Another concern for Michigan residents: a resurgence of other vaccine-preventable diseases. During this historic pandemic, we have seen a dangerous trend of children falling behind on their routinely recommended vaccines. Delaying preventive care and recommended vaccinations greatly increases the risk of outbreaks of dangerous diseases like measles. Michigan saw a 15.5% drop in immunizations among children 24 months and younger in the first four months of 2020, compared to the same time period in 2018 and 2019.

As of June 2020, 53% of Michigan children were fully immunized. We cannot let this trend continue. We must do better. We strongly encourage you to contact your physician to get yourself and your children caught up on essential recommended immunizations. Doing so will protect you, your children, and everyone in the community.

Whether you are sick or in need of chronic and preventive care, family medicine offices are open and prepared to care for individuals and families in a safe manner all across the state. An ounce of prevention is truly worth a pound of cure.  

Never has there been a more critical time in our history to be vigilant about taking every preventive measure to stay healthy. #MaskUpMichigan, #IVaccinate, and #SpreadHopeNotCOVID, because your health and the health of your community and those you love depends on it.

Mark Hamed, MD is president of the Michigan Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP). Pamela Rockwell is AAFP's liaison to the Centers for Disease Control and associate professor at the University of Michigan's Department of Family Medicine.