Last year, the holiday season challenged us to find ways to continue our holiday traditions amid a pandemic that forced us to remain away from our loved ones. This year, the challenge has become how to help keep our loved ones safe as we plan to celebrate the holidays.
“Most of the restrictions that we had last year during the holidays are gone this year,” said Jennifer Ukwu, MD, a family medicine physician with Memorial Hermann Medical Group Pearland. “This year, we’re anticipating an active flu season on top of the COVID-19 pandemic, which can make things more challenging for doctors and hospitals as we enter the holiday season.”
Dr. Ukwu points to vaccination against flu and COVID-19 as the best defense against illness and spreading these viruses to loved ones. She recommends getting the flu shot in October to allow time for the body to build up antibodies before the height of the North American flu season, which occurs between December and February.
“It takes 2 weeks for the body to produce the antibodies needed to ward off an infection, so we recommend getting the flu vaccine by the end of October,” she said. “That timeline allows for the body to be ready to fight the infection by the peak of flu season.” She added that the vaccine’s protection will last through May, when the number of flu cases drops dramatically. Dr. Ukwu also encourages people who are eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine and have not yet received the vaccine to do so now, as it similarly takes 2 weeks after the final dose to reach maximum protection.
“There are no contraindications for receiving the flu and COVID-19 vaccines or boosters at the same time,” Dr. Ukwu said. “Neither affects the efficacy of the other, and side effects are generally mild, with arm soreness and fatigue being the most common side effects cited.”
Dr. Ukwu recommends everyone over the age of 6 months, as recommended by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), get the flu shot yearly. For children under 8 who have not received a previous flu shot, a two-shot vaccination spaced 4 weeks apart is recommended, she says. She also notes that people over 65 should get the high-dose flu vaccine, as it offers protection against more strains of the influenza virus and therefore better protects this more vulnerable population. Even people who are allergic to eggs — used in the manufacturing of most flu vaccines — can safely receive the flu vaccine, the CDC now says. But special formulations of the vaccine that do not include egg products also are available.
Dr. Ukwu says that breakthrough cases can occur in individuals vaccinated against flu and COVID-19 because of waning immunity over time. Breakthrough illness can also occur with the flu vaccine because its formula for the current flu season addresses only the predominant strains circulating in the community, and other strains may still be present. But she says that breakthrough cases of either illness are milder, and symptoms last for a shorter duration, which are the key benefits of these vaccines.
Dr. Ukwu advises that even with flu and COVID-19 vaccination, other infection prevention measures should be followed at holiday gatherings to minimize exposure to these respiratory viruses. “Masking is ideal,” she said.
She also recommends taking advantage of the cooler weather of the fall and winter months to hold outdoor gatherings, which allows for ample social distancing to prevent the spread of respiratory droplets through the air.
While she acknowledges a desire to be with loved ones during the holidays, especially after losing time with them last holiday season, she encourages vigilance and suggests that virtual holiday gatherings should be considered. “We still need to watch out for the vulnerable members of our families – those who are older or immunocompromised,” she said. “No one wants to spend the holidays in a hospital, so protect yourself and others now so this holiday season will be safe and enjoyable.”