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Missouri doctors: Don't forget your flu shot during the coronavirus pandemic

Doctors want as many people as possible to get the flu vaccine before this year's season begins. Unlike last year, they're predicting a bad flu season now that many people are taking fewer precautions against the coronavirus.

The flu season is approaching, and St. Louis-area doctors say everyone who can get the flu vaccine should do so.

Unlike last year, doctors are predicting a bad flu season now that many people are taking fewer precautions against the coronavirus.

Because many people wore masks and stayed home during the pandemic, the country saw historically low levels of flu transmission during last year’s flu season, said Dr. Steven Lawrence, a Washington University infectious disease physician.

But doctors expect the flu virus to spread more this year.

“We can almost guarantee with just about 100% certainty that this year’s flu season is going to be worse than last year, which was a record low because people are getting together more often,” said Lawrence, who works at Barnes-Jewish Hospital.

During the height of the coronavirus pandemic, doctors worried that flu and COVID-19 patients would overwhelm hospitals.

This year, it’s more likely that the region will see fewer COVID-19 hospitalizations because more people are vaccinated against the coronavirus compared with last year. However, it’s likely people sick with the flu will fill up more beds.

Still, the coronavirus has proved to be unpredictable, and it’s important for people to get a flu shot to protect themselves and each other and keep the hospitals from getting too crowded, Lawrence said.

“We are expecting more flu this year, and we don’t know what COVID is going to do,” he said. “We were so concerned about it last winter, but it might be even more important this year to prevent flu as much as possible.”

It’s easy for patients to forget that other illnesses are a threat when the pandemic is still ongoing, said Dr. Troy Dinkel, president and chief medical officer at Total Access Urgent Care, which operates several clinics in the region.

Many people have become singularly focused on the coronavirus and forget about other risks, he said.

“Certainly, before COVID … if someone came in with a bad headache, upset stomach or a productive cough they were thinking, ‘I wonder if I have pneumonia,’” Dinkel said. “Now, they really just want a COVID test and leave, and sometimes we have to say wait a minute, there’s some other dangerous things that could be occurring here.”

Nearly half of Total Access patients go to the clinics for coronavirus-related reasons, he said. The clinic hasn’t begun offering flu vaccines for patients but plans to soon.

The COVID-19 vaccine doesn’t protect against the flu. But people can safely receive both flu and COVID vaccines at the same time, in many places for free. There isn’t any evidence of people who receive both shots simultaneously having more severe side effects, Lawrence said.

 Follow Sarah on Twitter: @petit_smudge

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