With the potential overlap of flu season and COVID boosters, here’s what health experts say
COVID-19 boosters shots could become more widely available right as doctors recommend that people get their flu shots.
That’s because the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are reviewing and considering authorizing COVID boosters just when the flu season typically starts.
An FDA advisory panel recently voted to recommend an emergency use authorization for third doses of Pfizer’s COVID vaccine for people 65 and older, and those at high risk for severe illness. A CDC advisory panel meets this week and is expected to further define who’s in the high-risk group.
Health experts say that there shouldn’t be any concern about getting both the COVID vaccine and a flu shot at the same time.
“In general, there isn’t any evidence that getting a flu vaccine and a COVID-19 vaccine at the same time poses any added risk,” said Dr. Ed Belongia an infectious disease epidemiologist and vaccine researcher at the Marshfield Clinic Research Institute in Wisconsin.
“The immune system is pretty good at handling multiple things at once,” said Deepta Bhattacharya, a professor of immunobiology at the University of Arizona College of Medicine. He noted how children often receive multiple vaccines at visits to their pediatrician.
Belongia suggested that, while there’s no safety issue, older people who typically get a high-dose flu shot may want to space out the flu and COVID vaccines if they are concerned about side effects like fatigue, achiness and sore arms.
Health experts warn that this year’s flu season could be especially harsh — and its return is not a question of if, but when. “We do not know when [the flu] will come back in the United States, but we know it will come back,” Sonja Olsen, a CDC epidemiologist, told The New York Times.
Heading into the fall, experts are concerned about a “twin-demic,” which could occur if surges in COVID cases coincide with the seasonal resurgence of the flu. As more and more people return to relatively normal lives — socializing, going to school, dining out, traveling — that could result in more flu circulating this year.
“There is certainly a sense of concern that if the flu does come back, it could be more severe,” Belongia said. “If kids are back in school and they’re engaged in more normal activities that spread respiratory viruses, that could lead us to a robust flu season.”
Last year, some scientists expressed similar concerns at a conference of the Infectious Diseases Society of America, according to reporting from Science News.
But with mask mandates in many states and many schools offering virtual learning options, there basically wasn’t a flu season last winter.
Last year, the CDC estimated that 2,136 people tested positive for the influenza virus, and 748 deaths were attributable to the flu. These figures are much lower than in previous years. In the 2019-2020 flu season, for example, the CDC estimated there were 38 million illnesses and 22,000 deaths from the flu.
The decrease in flu cases last winter “was good in terms of not having to deal with flu but that actually makes us more concerned now, because people’s immunity over time to flu has waned,” Belongia said.
He said that although many people want to compare COVID and the flu, the two diseases present different scenarios for the immune system. While COVID is a new disease, most people already have had multiple encounters with influenza.
“All that prior history of infections and vaccinations will shape your immune response to a subsequent exposure,” he said.
With so little influenza circulating, he said that scientists had a challenge trying to identify which strains of the virus might circulate this year.