With so many concerns about COVID-19, the Delta and Omicron variants, and other viruses— it's hard to know where to begin… With the pandemic still raging, it might be tempting to forgo your flu shot and "muscle your way" through.

But germs are tricky and have a way of finding even the most resilient of us. Whether wiping a child’s runny nose or dodging holiday shoppers’ coughs and sneezes, we’re all in the line of fire at some point. So, let’s dive in.

The forecast for this year's flu season in Virginia? Bad

According to the Medical Director of Infection Prevention and Control at Carilion Roanoke Memorial Hospital, in Roanoke, Virginia, Dr. Anthony Baffoe-Bonnie, we will likely see more flu cases in the US and our local community. "In our area, we have almost a thousand cases of influenza since September and actually five hundred cases" (in the first week of December 2021).

The reality — The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has already confirmed thousands of cases of the flu this year - in just a few weeks - and that number will likely increase as winter sets in. The CDC estimates that the flu has resulted in 9 million to 41 million illnesses, 140,000 to 710,000 hospitalizations, and 12,000 to 52,000 deaths annually between 2010 and 2020.

How we got here — In 2020, the number of influenza cases was record-low. Newport News, VA-based pharmacist, Dr. Terrence Ridley explains, “Last year, we were masking up, working remotely, physical distancing and hand washing. Now, we’re reemerging and socializing. We’re more relaxed and closer.” Literally. “But we’re not taking the same precautions this year.” Experts fear that several factors —from people beginning to gather in groups once again increased travel and the surge of the COVID-19 Delta and Omicron variants— could create a “double whammy” (or as some may call it, a Twindemic): a harsh flu and COVID-19 season.

The good news? You can protect yourself. It's as simple as getting the flu shot.

The Flu Shot Basics

Exactly what is the flu? It is an easily-spread respiratory disease caused by the influenza virus that affects the nose, throat, and lungs. Symptoms include fever, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, chills, muscle aches, and fatigue.

When will the flu shot kick in? It takes about two weeks for your body to build immunity after receiving the vaccine.

Why not just skip the shot? “We’re still in the middle of a pandemic. Not getting the flu shot puts you at greater risk,” warns Dr. Ridley. COVID-19 and influenza are both dangerous respiratory viruses. Getting back-to-back infections could lead to severe illness, as the first infection might have already weakened your lungs. (And, by the way, don’t overlook the economic impact of missing work— from using up sick days to losing pay and falling behind.)

Ok, ready? Without further ado:

Our Top Five Reasons for Getting the Flu Shot This Year:

(My personal favorite is #5)

Reason #1 — Getting vaccinated against the flu could save your life.

The worst consequences of getting influenza are hospitalization, long-term illness, and death. “People do die from the flu and flu-related illnesses. It's something they should take seriously," says Dr. Ridley.

The most likely to get the flu? Children under five years of age, adults over 65, and people with chronic medical conditions such as emphysema, diabetes, and cancer. For them, flu symptoms can be much worse.

And to caregivers who don't think kids under five need to get vaccinated? Dr. Ridley paints a sobering reality, "Their immune systems aren't that advanced. Consider the impact of (the environment) like daycare — and sharing toys, hugging, and playing." It's the proverbial perfect storm.

Reason #2 — Last year’s flu shot might not protect you against this year’s strains of the influenza virus.

Unfortunately, the flu strains change from year to year.  That means flu vaccines work a bit like fashion trends: They make a big impact one year but often fizzle out by the next.

Additionally, a person’s immune protection from vaccination declines over time. For that reason, annual vaccination is needed to get the “optimal” or best protection against the flu.

The takeaway: Stay current!

Reason #3 You should be able to get your flu shot for free or at a very low cost.

Flu shots are free for people who qualify for Medicare, Medicaid, or VA benefits.

Learn more about free vaccines and where to get them here. In addition, there are flu vaccination events throughout the year, many of which offer free flu vaccines.

Reason #4 — It's safe to get multiple immunizations at one time.

Translation: You don't have to do absurd math to figure out when to get which vaccination.

"The CDC now says it's safe to get both the flu vaccine and COVID-19 at once," Dr. Ridley assures us. The body's immune response and side effects are generally the same as getting a single vaccine.

To the skeptics, take it from Ms. Dayana Ruíz, a Norfolk, VA-based registered nurse, and mom. Dayana educates herself and exercises her right to choose through the lenses of both medicine and motherhood. "If these vaccines exist, it's for a reason. They were created to stop us from contracting an illness or lessening the severity of it."

Reason #5 — Getting vaccinated protects you and those around you.

The flu shot is a "two-for-one" deal!

First, it reduces your chances of contracting the flu. And if you do get sick, the vaccination reduces the severity of illness. Second, getting vaccinated also helps keep others healthy: your family, friends, co-workers, favorite Starbucks barista, or the cool DoorDash guy.

Ruíz puts this into perspective: "I get my family vaccinated because I don't want them to suffer. To love them is to protect them with these preventive measures."

Numbers worth knowing: Studies have found that unvaccinated people are two times more likely to infect others than those who are vaccinated. So it's in everyone's interest that we achieve “herd immunity.”

So go ahead, get your flu shot, mask up, and enjoy the holiday party!

Summary — The flu continues to cause millions of illnesses, hundreds of thousands of hospitalizations, and tens of thousands of deaths. Yet, despite the benefits, only about half of Americans get an annual flu vaccine. Bottom line: Getting the flu shot is the single most effective action you can take to protect yourself and others against the influenza virus.

"I think we have a responsibility to protect ourselves as well as those around us. So, yes, we do have the right to choose— but we should think about others, too", Dr. Ridley said.

The facts are here. The choice is yours. Protect the ones you love and get your flu shot today. Find a flu vaccine provider near you, or browse a list of available flu vaccination events in your area.