With flu season approaching and Newfoundland and Labrador's regional health authorities opening free flu shot clinics Monday, CBC's Mark Quinn sat down with Sherri Christian, an associate professor in Memorial University's faculty of medicine and department of biology, to talk about vaccines, influenza and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Here's some of their conversation:
This discussion has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: There have been fewer cases of influenza during the pandemic, and with less influenza around, some people are wondering if they need to get a flu shot this year?
Sherri Christian: It's really interesting that there really has been essentially no flu in Canada circulating in the population because of all the measures to prevent COVID-19. And now, this year, we don't really know if that's going to continue, because, of course, we are opening up again and now there is a chance the flu is going to come into the country and begin circulating. Because there has been no flu for the past year, we don't know if that means flu cases are going to be lower, or if our immunity as a population is lower and we are more likely to get flu. So it's actually really difficult to predict what the flu season is going to look like. Having said that, it is a really good idea to get the flu shot, because if it does happen to be a bad flu year, then you are more protected. The other reason we want people to be protected from the flu is because there are already people in hospital with COVID, and if we add people who are really sick with the flu to that number of people already in hospital, we could really overwhelm the system.
Q: So it is possible that there's lower immunity in the population, and that could mean a bad flu year?
Christian: Yes, there could be, and we are calling that the potential for a "twindemic," and that's where we get both high levels of flu and high levels of COVID. Again, what will happen is we'll get more people in the hospital who are really sick from both of these, and we don't know what the consequences would be if someone was infected with both. So you can imagine it would be very hard for someone to recover from two viral infections.
Q: This year there are still people getting COVID shots and some people are wondering if they should be getting a flu shot at the same time, should they be concerned?
Christian: So, immunologically speaking, there is no problem with that, but we do want people to space out their vaccines in case they get a reaction to one of the vaccines, and then we know which vaccine it's related to. So, it's important to space them out.
Q: Do you think that we will have to get COVID shots annually in the future in the same way we get flu shots annually?
Christian: COVID changes a lot more slowly than the flu. So even though we are seeing variants come out, it's not like how the flu changes every year and so, once we get enough people vaccinated in the world, the number of variants is really going to decrease. It's hard to predict. I don't have a crystal ball. I think it's possible that we may need a booster, but I doubt that we are going to need a regular, yearly COVID shot.