Every year at this time health experts pitch the importance of getting a flu vaccine, but they are doing so with more urgency this year as flu season overlaps with a pandemic.

The CEO of Huntsville Hospital Health System, which includes Decatur Morgan and Athens-Limestone hospitals, said the similarity of flu and COVID-19 symptoms makes taking the flu vaccine especially important.

"Flu symptoms and COVID symptoms are very similar," said David Spillers. "We will have to treat people who come in with symptoms of the flu as if they're (positive for) COVID until we can rule out COVID. ... The more people who get a flu shot and don't show up with symptoms, the better off we'll all be."

Because of increasing evidence that people can be infected both with the flu and with the new coronavirus, he said, a positive flu test may not be enough to rule out the possibility that a patient also has COVID-19.

The Alabama Department of Public Health, the Alabama Hospital Association, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Alabama, and the Medical Association of the State of Alabama all issued statements last week stressing the importance of getting an influenza vaccination.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, seasonal influenza is a year-round illness, but cases often increase in October and peak between December and February. With the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, staving off the flu becomes especially imperative, the groups said.

“Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, reducing the spread of respiratory illnesses, like the flu, this fall and winter is more important than ever,” said Koko Mackin of Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Alabama. “Flu vaccines will not prevent COVID-19, but they will reduce the burden of flu illnesses, hospitalizations and deaths on the health care system and conserve limited medical resources for the care of COVID-19 patients.”

In a separate statement, State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris also stressed the importance of Alabamians getting the vaccine.

“Yearly influenza vaccination of all persons 6 months of age and older is the best way to protect yourself and your family from potentially serious complications,” said Harris. “Sadly, last year only half of Americans got the vaccination, and more than 400,000 were hospitalized for the flu. Getting vaccinated is easy and can lower the risk of the flu, doctors’ visits, hospitalization and even death. The vaccine also reduces the risk of heart attack and stroke among high-risk groups.”

Joining Harris in a statement released last week was Medical Association of the State of Alabama President Dr. John Meigs, who also spelled out the troubles caused by the flu.

“One of the myths is that healthy people don’t need the flu vaccine,” Meigs said. “While the highest risk is for those with underlying conditions, we’ve lost thousands of healthy adults and children each year to flu, so that’s a myth we need to address right away.”

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