Lessons from Coronavirus :: Get a Flu Shot


Everybody’s talking about coronavirus, or COVID-19, and social distancing. And for good reason as both Italy and China (among other countries) have illustrated for the world. I’ll do my part and stay home, teach my college classes online, and form a mental game plan about how to homeschool my big kids. I’ll also try to keep an infant on some form of a routine/schedule.

I’m a scientist who took a handful of epidemiology courses in graduate school. From an academic viewpoint, I find reading and thinking about the way governments and societies are managing this pandemic fascinating. (Yes, I’m a nerd)!

For the Good of Public Health — Thinking of Others First

I do understand the rationale for social distancing, which is basically a fancy way of saying, “Everybody stay home as much as you possibly can.” I will follow suit–although I won’t be hoarding toilet paper–for the good of public health.

My social media feed is filled with pleas to stay home for the good of society (and rightly so). I will stay home for the older folks whose immune systems are more susceptible to this virus. I will stay home for the immune compromised, who are at much greater risk of severe illness than the average person. Something hard and difficult–in this case, coronavirus–may have really positive effects on our nation and society if it helps us to think of others before ourselves.

But I beg of you, if you are reading this, to consider another way to think of others. The good news is that it is easier, quicker, and cheaper than social distancing. In fact, it only takes about ten minutes rather than 14+ days.

Get a flu shot.

Hear me out now. I know vaccine talk breeds much controversy, but this coronavirus pandemic ought to help us think differently about public health. I’m not trying to talk down to the people who don’t get any vaccines. That is a pointless exercise as there are many, many well-written pieces out there (including hundreds of peer-reviewed research articles), that have failed to convince those with this mindset.

However, I am talking to the many who “believe” in vaccines but don’t get a flu shot specifically.

In the 2018-2019 flu season, 62.6% of children ages six months to 17 years and 45.3% of adults ages 18 and older received a flu vaccine according to the CDC. It’s hard to know exactly how many Americans refuse all vaccinations, but at my children’s elementary school, less than 1% of children have vaccine exemptions. So, most people “believe” in vaccines, yet don’t get the flu shot.

Today, while we as a nation are currently thinking about the good of our society, it’s time to change our mindset about the flu vaccine.

There are many common arguments against the flu shot which I will attempt to address in light of the current coronavirus pandemic. But the message is simple: if we care enough about our society to follow social distancing protocols, we should also care enough to get a flu shot.

Common Arguments Against the Flu Shot

But the flu shot isn’t always effective.

True. But it’s always somewhat effective, from a population standpoint. Remember the coronavirus argument? Stay home for the good of public health, for the masses, for the people who can’t protect themselves. The same goes for the flu shot. Even if the shot is somewhat effective–say it reduces flu cases by half–that means half of the transmissions. And half of the transmissions means fewer people taking up hospital beds.

The flu shot doesn’t have to be 100% effective for individuals in order to reduce the public health burden. So far, in the 2019-2020 flu season, at least 22,000 Americans died of flu-related causes. That’s the most conservative estimate. While the hospitalization and case fatality rates for flu are (thankfully) less than coronavirus, our neighbors, relatives, and community members are still dying of flu. Our hospitals are treating flu patients at great expense. So think of others. Get a flu shot.

But I got the flu shot last year and still got the flu.

See above. Getting the flu shot isn’t all about you. It’s about our society being protected as a whole just like social distancing with coronavirus. Get a flu shot.

But it’s a hassle to get a flu shot.

It’s also a hassle to shut down the country and endure major economic impacts that will extend for months or even years. It’s a hassle to cancel professional sports seasons, miss March Madness (my favorite sporting event of the year!), and leave millions of children with gaps of missed education. But it wasn’t too much hassle to do it for the good of others. Get a flu shot.

Think of Others

We are shutting down our society for the good of others. The mantra of coronavirus–at least so far–is: “Think of others and stay home.” The good news is that long after this pandemic is over, we can continue to think of others in many different ways. We can share our toilet paper, perhaps. And we can get a flu shot.