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How to Safely Get a Flu Shot During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Man receiving vaccine from inside his car.

 Capuski / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

  • This flu season, it’s more crucial than ever to get the flu vaccine, and it’s possible to do it safely.
  • To avoid crowds, it is best to call ahead of your planned arrival time to gauge how busy the vaccination site is or to make an appointment.
  • Early October may be the most strategic time to get vaccinated to remain protected for the entire season.

Every year, doctors strongly advise patients to get an influenza (flu) vaccination. This year, amidst worries of a "twindemic" between the two viruses, they are urging Americans to do the same. In fact, getting your shot is especially important this year because of the pandemic, and the possibility of confusion between the flu and COVID-19's shared symptoms.

To help ensure wide access to the flu shot, manufacturers have projected a supply of as many as 198 million doses this season—more doses than any other year. We spoke to doctors who shared their advice on when and where to get your flu shot, how to stay safe during your appointment, and why it's important for you to stay vaccinated.

Where To Get a Flu Shot

While many workplaces remain closed and may no longer offer the flu shot to employees on-site, there are still plenty of places to get vaccinated—including at a primary care physician’s or nurse practitioner’s office, a neighborhood urgent-care clinic, or a local health center. For the closest locations, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) offers a handy flu-shot locator. Some pharmacies also offer flu shots, like CVS and Walgreens.

Where's your safest bet? That’s difficult to generalize. It depends on how each individual venue is run and how crowded it is when you show up. Before you go, call, or check on its website, to make sure there are: 

  • Mask or face-covering requirements for employees and customers
  • Physical distancing strategies
  • Thorough cleansing and disinfection protocols
  • Good ventilation systems, open windows, or both

Another option to consider is drive-thru vaccination venues.

“When a drive-thru is set up well, it’s safe and convenient,” Ruth Carrico, PhD, DNP, APRN, CIC, clinic director of the University of Louisville Vaccine and International Travel Center in Kentucky, tells Verywell. Carrico, who co-authored a new 2020 manual on the topic, says drive-thrus keep people from being in a crowd and allow them to social distance. The vaccine itself takes a mere minute to administer.

How To Time Your Appointment

Experts emphasize that the most important message to remember is to get vaccinated, whenever that might be, assuming you’re not on antibiotics and you’re not sick. If you have the luxury of choice, it’s best to make an appointment ahead of time or ask when is the least busy time for that venue.

Generally speaking, in a doctor’s office, the first appointment of the day is often best. Without patients ahead of you, the provider is less likely to be running late, which means you’re not sitting in the waiting room longer than you have to. If the first appointment is not available, try to find one that’s close to it.

New York City pharmacist Elaine Mulhall, PharmD, who provides flu shots at CVS in the Bronx, New York, tells Verywell that on some days there may be more than one nurse practitioner or pharmacist on the premises, and those are the days that you’ll least likely have to wait.

Some drugstores (as is also the case with doctor’s offices and health clinics) allow you to make an appointment. At all CVS locations, for instance, you can schedule a time via the CVS Pharmacy app or the pharmacy’s website, and fill out any paperwork digitally ahead of time, so you can minimize time spent in the waiting area. Walgreens, too, has a location finder for flu shots on its website.

During your appointment, protect yourself from COVID-19 and the flu by:

  • Wearing a well-fitting mask
  • Staying at least six feet away from others
  • Spending as little time as possible at your appointment
  • Opt for touchless payment options
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth
  • Once you get home, wash your hands well with soap and warm water for at least 20 seconds

What This Means For You

It's important for you to get your flu shot as soon as possible to stay protected this season. You can use the CDC's flu shot finder to locate the most convenient spot for you. Make sure to call or check online to learn more about the venue's COVID-19 safety precautions, and try to make an appointment ahead of time.

When To Get a Flu Shot

If you have some flexibility in getting your flu shot, then taking into account a few factors can help maximize the efficacy of the vaccine and minimize the risk of exposing yourself to COVID-19 or other circulating viruses. 

Generally speaking, early October may be the most strategic time to get vaccinated. Typically, you’ll see a rise in flu cases between November through March. “But it can also come as early as October or extend into April,” David M. Morens, MD, senior advisor to the director at the National Institute of Allergy and Disease in Maryland, tells Verywell.

At the same time, keep in mind that the flu vaccine takes about two weeks to work, and its protective powers last about six months. Getting vaccinated in October allows you the chance to catch any early exposure but will also be potent enough come late March should you need it. 

If your best availability for a flu shot is in September, then by all means, take it. While your vaccination may not be as potent if there’s a surge in late spring, you’d still be covered for the majority of the season when the virus is typically most active. An early shot would also help you avoid the potential crush of crowds later in the fall.

That said, it’s never too late in the season to get a flu shot—even if it’s January, Morens says. There’s still plenty of flu season to go, and, in fact, historically, cases typically hit their peak in February. 

Keep in mind, too, that the biggest impact on your health is what’s happening in your local area, Morens says. Your state may experience earlier or later bouts of flu compared to a different state. Check for updates from your local or state health-department updates to gauge flu conditions near you and make your plans for vaccinations accordingly.  

Why Do You Need a Flu Shot, Anyway?

Vaccines lower your risks of catching the flu, and if you do end up getting infected, the shot may reduce its severity and duration. This could help prevent you from having to go to the hospital because of the flu, which could potentially make you more exposed to COVID-19. 

Because symptoms of the flu and COVID-19 are similar, especially in its early stages, “getting a flu vaccination could relieve some of the confusion as to who has what,” Carrico says. What’s more, in the off chance you were to get hit with both at the same time, having had a flu shot could help you withstand COVID-19 a little better. “You need to enter the situation with as much strength as you can,” Carrico says. “The flu shot gives you the best chance of that.” 

A flu shot also makes a positive impact on public health. When you’re healthy, or at least healthy enough to recover at home, you’re doing your part to prevent hospital systems from being overwhelmed. It allows those who need medical care most to get it, Carrico says. 

While it’s true that vaccinations are not 100% effective at preventing the flu, they still make a big impact. According to the CDC, the vaccine was 45% effective overall last flu season. This, in turn, prevented an estimated 4.4 million flu cases, 2.3 million flu-related medical visits, 58,000 hospitalizations, and 3,500 flu-related deaths.

In case you think that you might catch the flu from the vaccine, don’t worry. The shot contains killed (and therefore inactivated) viruses. The nasal spray is made from cold-adapted weakened viruses which can only cause infection in the cooler temperatures of the nose and not the warmer temperature of the lungs. As a result, none of these variations can give you a case of the flu.

If you are allergic to eggs, the provider will use a version made without egg-grown viruses. People older than age 65 may choose special vaccines designed to elicit a stronger immune response. Whatever your concerns, talk to your provider. Chances are, there is a suitable option for you.

If you have reason to believe that you might have COVID-19, call your provider and seek out a diagnosis first. “Individuals should not receive any vaccines if they suspect they may have COVID-19, regardless of whether or not they have symptoms,” Mulhall says. “Postpone any vaccinations until they have completed the isolation period recommended by CDC guidelines or a healthcare professional,” she says. 

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  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Seasonal influenza vaccine supply for the U.S. 2020-2021 influenza season. Updated August 19, 2020.

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The flu season. Updated July 12, 2018.

  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. What are the benefits of flu vaccination? Updated August 31, 2020.

  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Different types of flu vaccines. Updated August 17, 2020.