For the last year and a half, seniors have been keenly aware of the threat from Covid. This seems natural, as the virus has proved especially deadly for people over age 65. Adults over 65 accounted for 80% of Covid hospitalizations and are at a significantly higher risk of death than younger patients. At the same time, this period saw a dramatic decline in the number of influenza cases. It was as if the common “flu” almost disappeared!
Last year’s very low level of flu was likely due to social distancing, reduced travel and mask-wearing, all measures taken to try to control Covid. Those measures were also very effective in preventing flu. Nationwide, flu accounted for only about 4 hospitalizations per 100,000 people, compared to the usual rate of 70 hospitalizations per 100,000, and flu-related deaths dropped by 95%.
Unfortunately, the outlook for this year’s flu season is not as bright. Several studies have predicted that this year will see an increase in hospitalizations due to influenza. This would follow pattern of severe flu seasons following relatively light ones during the previous year. Because there were so few cases of influenza last year, the overall population is likely to have lower levels of immunity, making a bout of flu more likely.
While Covid will continue to be an attention-grabbing concern, we (seniors, especially) should not ignore the threat of old-fashion flu. Each year, flu kills thousands of people; like Covid, it affects seniors more so than younger people. For the coming season, the CDC continues to recommend flu vaccination beginning in September through the entire flu season which typically ends by April. Because there are lower overall levels of flu immunity, the season may start and peak earlier this year than usual. Public health officials are especially worried about the possibility of a “twindemic,” a simultaneous increase in the number of both Covid and influenza cases that would put a severe strain on hospitals.
All of this points to the importance of early immunization against flu and continued caution about Covid. Seniors should get flu immunizations as soon as possible and closely follow the recommendations for Covid. If you were immunized early with one of the Covid vaccines, keep alert for updates about booster shots.
Ask your doctor or pharmacist about one of the flu vaccines that are more effective in older patients. These vaccines are designed specifically for patients aged 65+, and they work by improving the production of antibodies, providing a stronger immune response than traditional vaccines. Like standard flu vaccines, they are given as an injection in the arm. The side effects are similar, although some patients may experience increased redness or soreness around the injection site.
Medicare insurance covers one administration of flu vaccine each flu season. If you were immunized late in the last season (January or later of 2021,) you are still covered by Medicare for this year’s immunization. Be sure that the physician or pharmacy who administers the vaccine accepts Medicare assignment, and the shot should cost you nothing. Don’t wait to get the flu shot. It is available in many places, including your doctor’s office and local pharmacies. If you have Original Medicare, contact them for details. Contact your Medicare Advantage Plan if you have opted for Part C Medicare coverage. Most providers will accept Medicare Advantage Plan coverage.
Getting immunized against flu is a benefit to yourself and to those around you. Even if the flu does not send you to a hospital, it means days of an uncomfortable lifestyle and can threaten your family, friends and strangers alike. Influenza A and B viruses are very contagious. They can spread from person to person via the tiny droplets from an infected person’s sneeze or cough. Research has shown that this infectious material can travel as far as six feet after being exhaled.