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Experts: Get a COVID-19 Vaccine Even If You Don't Typically Get a Flu Shot

Black healthcare professional giving a shot to a woman. Both are wearing face masks.

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Key Takeaways

  • During the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s more important than ever to get a flu shot. Doing so will help keep you from getting sick and reduce the current strain on healthcare systems.
  • Experts are begging Americans to take a closer look at the efficacy data to quell any fears that they may have about vaccines and remind them that their participation is needed to reach herd immunity.
  • Even though it's after the New Year, it’s still not too late to get your flu vaccine.

There is light at the end of the COVID-19 pandemic tunnel thanks to the two U.S. authorized COVID-19 vaccines from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna. Still, while the vaccines are currently being rolled out, about 27% of Americans say that they are reluctant to get vaccinated.

In the U.S., reasons for vaccine hesitancy run the gamut, ranging from possible side effects to distrust in the government. Additionally, some people have questioned why they would need to get a COVID-19 vaccine if they normally don’t get the flu shot.

Several infectious disease experts say that the logic behind these concerns is mistaken. “I would stress with everyone that when you are due to get the COVID-19 vaccine, you should get it, it’s a big mistake to think that you’re somehow immune and protected and you don’t need it,” Robert Jacobson, MD, a Mayo Clinic pediatrician in the department of Community Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, tells Verywell. 

While flu vaccines and COVID-19 vaccines are not the same (and getting a flu shot won't keep you from getting COVID-19) they both will have an important role to play in the pandemic.

COVID-19 Vaccines and Flu Vaccines

Health agencies have struggled for years to get Americans vaccinated against the influenza viruses that circulate. According to estimates by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), less than half (48.4%) of adults over the age of 18 received the flu vaccine during the 2019–20 flu season.

Although this year’s vaccination coverage was up 3.1 percentage points from last season, less than half of American adults received the flu vaccine between 2010-2020, with the lowest vaccination rates being in the 2017-18 season (41.7%).

“We really struggle with regards to uptake in this country—and a lot of that has to do with people worried about the efficacy,” Rupali Limaye, MD, an associate scientist at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, tells Verywell.

The flu vaccine needs to be tweaked each year because flu viruses are constantly mutating. That's one reason why producing an effective shot is challenging. In the last 11 flu seasons, the average vaccine effectiveness was around 43%, with the lowest recording of 19% in the 2014-15 season.

Another reason why developing flu vaccines is difficult is related to how they’re made. “The flu vaccine essentially has to be grown from eggs, and that takes a long time, it’s not a quick process," says Limaye. "Part of that is we look at this year’s [flu] strains to think about what we’ll put in next year’s flu shot, so it’s not necessarily quite accurate."

Rupali Limaye, MD

We really struggle with regards to uptake in this country—and a lot of that has to do with people worried about the efficacy.

— Rupali Limaye, MD

Limaye says that the difference between flu vaccines and COVID-19 vaccines is that the numbers in terms of effectiveness are "pretty incredible"—90% to 94%.

The Pfizer vaccine showed an efficacy of 95% at preventing symptomatic COVID-19 infection seven or more days after the second dose. The efficacy for preventing confirmed COVID-19 occurring at least 14 days after the second dose of the Moderna vaccine was 94%.

Differences in Illness Severity

Timothy Brewer, MD, an epidemiologist and a professor of medicine at UCLA's Fielding School of Public Health, wants to remind people that we’ve had over 300,000 Americans die from COVID-19. By comparison, somewhere between 12,000 and 61,000 Americans die in a typical flu season.

“We’ve had ten times as many people die from COVID-19 already and it’s getting worse, it’s not getting better,” Brewer says, emphasizing COVID-19 vaccination is paramount. “If you look at what has happened across the country since Halloween there has been an exponential growth in cases, hospitalizations, and, to a lesser extent, deaths.”

Experts have stated that COVID-19 is a much more severe pathogen than influenza viruses. Looking at the 2019-20 flu season, the CDC estimates that influenza was associated with 38 million illnesses and 405,000 hospitalizations.

Compare those estimates to COVID-19, where the total number of cases hit 20.64 million as of January 4, 2021.

While it’s difficult to estimate the cumulative number of COVID-19 hospitalizations since the pandemic started, the number of currently hospitalized patients in the U.S. (as of January 5, 2021) was 131,215.

Another recent model created by scientists at the CDC estimates that the numbers are even higher, as it also accounts for unreported and asymptomatic cases. The model found that from February to September 2020, there were 52.9 million total COVID-19 infections and 2.4 million hospitalizations.

What This Means For You

Whether or not you normally get the influenza vaccine each year, doctors and health agencies are urging all Americans to get their flu shot to keep everyone as healthy as possible. The same applies when the COVID-19 vaccine becomes available to you.

If you have questions or concerns about a vaccine, talk to your healthcare provider. You can also seek information from trustworthy sources, like the CDC.

How Vaccines Protect Those Around You

If you question whether you need to get the flu vaccine each year, keep in mind when you get vaccinated, it also protects the people around you. Some of those people might have a higher risk of developing serious illness if they get the flu, like young children, older adults, and those with chronic health conditions.

The same goes for getting a COVID-19 vaccine. It will not only help make sure that you don't get sick but contributes to America reaching herd immunity.

What Is Herd Immunity?

Herd immunity occurs when a large number of people in a community develop immunity against a contagious disease. This immunity can be the result of antibodies developed in response to an infection or from vaccination. When enough of the population has acquired immunity, vulnerable members of the population—who may not be able to get vaccinated—are more protected and less likely to contract the disease.

In an interview with ABC News, Dr. Fauci said that the U.S. might be able to reach herd immunity in around 75% to 80% of the population by the end of the summer or early fall if vaccine implementation reaches at least a million people a day.

Limaye agrees, adding that it's important for "everyone to chip in because we need a proportion of the population to reach that herd immunity level and once we reach that level, we’ll then be able to essentially ‘break’ the pandemic."

Jacobson pointed out that with the measles vaccine, we needed 90% of the population to be immune before outbreaks stopped. “We don’t know what that percent of herd immunity is for COVID-19," Jacobson says. "And we’ll only see that over time, but getting the vaccine is part of getting the pandemic under control.”

What You Can Do

The U.S. is continuing to distribute and administer COVID-19 vaccinations. The CDC's tracker indicates that 4.8 million people have received their first dose as of January 5.

While you wait for your priority group to be called, getting your flu shot is still a powerful preventative tool most Americans have access to. The efficacy of the flu vaccine might vary each year, but research still shows that getting your flu shot reduces your risk of needing to see a doctor if you do get sick by 40% to 60%.

During the 2019-2020 flu season, the flu shot prevented an estimated 105,000 flu-related hospitalizations.

If you haven’t received a flu shot yet, it's not too late. While the CDC recommends getting vaccinated in the early fall, vaccination should still be offered throughout the flu season “even into January or later.”

Getting your flu shot this year is more important than it has ever been before. A flu vaccine will help keep people from getting sick, and therefore reduce the burden on hospitals and health workers that are struggling with the current influx of COVID-19 patients and scarce medical resources.

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

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Article Sources
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