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Health officials say it's 'critical year' for people to get flu shot

Healthcare workers prepare to respond to flu season and COVID-19

MACON, Ga. — As we get closer to flu season starting up this fall, health officials are already encouraging people to go ahead and plan on getting your flu vaccine this year.

The CDC Director Robert Redfield said, "This is a critical year for us to try to take flu as much off the table as we can," in a live streamed interview with JAMA Network on Aug. 20.

This year poses more challenges than in past flu seasons since healthcare workers are already responding to COVID-19.

Dr. Ted Ross, director of the Center for Vaccines and Immunology at the University of Georgia, says it may be more difficult for physicians to diagnose a patient just based on symptoms.  

"Because they do present with similar symptom, whereas influenza, generally for young adults, is mild, and for the elderly, it's more severe, along with young children. In COVID, it seems to be less severe for children than it is in the adults. We're going to have a difficult time telling that just based on symptoms," Ross said.

If this season is severe, the question is how it could affect hospitals, particularly during the peak of flu season. 

"I'm more worried about the availability of ICU beds myself," Dr. Nick Mullis, an Emergency Medicine resident at Coliseum Medical Centers.

"If we're still dealing with COVID at the rate it's occurring today, it's a real concern that our hospital beds and ICUs might fill up with these respiratory infections-- both from flu and coronavirus,"

Ross says we're going into this season "blind" in terms of how severe this virus is.

Ross says researchers usually look to the Southern Hemisphere on how their flu season was since they've already gone through their winter, but this year's numbers may not be reflective of how bad the season may be because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

"What's giving us a little pause this year is there was very little influenza circulating in the Southern Hemisphere, and we think that was because people were social distancing and quarantining. It didn't allow an opportunity for that to happen in places like Australia and Argentina this year," Ross said, "So we really are going blind into this flu season on how severe it may be."

With that, doctors are encouraging people to roll up their sleeves and get the shot. 

"I would just highly advise everyone to get the vaccine. I think it would only help you. It's going to protect you against most strains of the influenza virus, so if not for yourself, then for others," Mullis said. 

The CDC recommends to get the flu shot before the end of October so protection lasts throughout the flu season. 

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