MidMichigan Health’s Dr. Lydia Watson on the critical importance of getting the flu vaccine

It’s advice we’ve all heard before, yet, it’s never been more imperative than it is now – the importance of getting your annual flu vaccine. We sat down with Dr. Lydia Watson, M.D., senior vice president and chief medical officer at MidMichigan Health to discuss why getting vaccinated is your best line of defense against the flu and boosting your immunity.

As we head into flu season and the country continues to see cases of COVID-19, the potential to see combined viral impact is very real.

Dr. Lydia Watson, M.D., senior vice president and chief medical officer at MidMichigan Health“We are urging everyone that this year, it is more important than ever to get the flu vaccine,” says Dr. Watson. “Number one, while we have the issue of continuing to deal with COVID-19, we can’t lose sight of the fact that influenza is another potentially lethal virus that comes each year. Now, the problem is that it's going to be difficult to tell the difference between the flu and COVID-19, because so many of the symptoms overlap.”

“Additionally, it is absolutely possible to have both infections at the same time. In that situation, having both viruses tends to complicate the patient’s care and makes the severity of either one of them, or their impact together, much worse,” says Dr. Watson. We saw that last year at the end of flu season where we had patients that tested positive for both viruses.”

While MidMichigan Health is planning for the scenario of seeing increased volume of both types of patients across the organization’s facilities, vaccination is something that can inhibit the impact of the flu.

While MidMichigan Health is planning for the scenario of seeing increased volume of both types of patients across the organization’s facilities, vaccination is something that can inhibit the impact of the flu.
“By having an adequate number of people immunized for the flu in our communities, we will be less likely to get an influx of patients ill with either the flu or both flu and COVID-19. The more severe cases of each virus often end up needing ICU care and ventilator support,” says Dr. Watson. “We are still emphasizing all of the simple and basic precautions like practicing good hand hygiene, cough and sneeze hygiene, masking, abiding by social distancing precautions and getting the flu vaccine. It’s also really important for people to not go to work, school, or out in public places if they are not feeling well, experiencing a fever or respiratory symptoms.”

Similar to COVID-19, the health community learns about the flu virus from the countries in the eastern world first, which is how the three to four components that make up the defense mechanism of the vaccine are selected.

“Depending on the vaccine and how the actual virus responds, those who receive the vaccine are between 40 and 60 percent less likely to be admitted to the hospital, 60 to 80 percent less likely to end up in the ICU from flu pneumonia and it reduces the risk of dying as well,” says Dr. Watson.

Even if all the planning efforts that go into the vaccine each year miss some of the viral strains that prove to be the most contagious, getting the vaccine is not a loss and helps build a person’s overall antibody response to the virus.

As we head into flu season and the country continues to see cases of COVID-19, the potential to see combined viral impact is very real.
“If the vaccine misses some or all of the most infectious viral strains completely in any one year, the flu vaccine can still decrease the impact on those who contract the flu virus from a different strain,” says Dr. Watson. “You may still get the flu, but it will likely be less severe if you are vaccinated.”

The recommendations for vaccination apply to nearly everyone, with a few exceptions for infants and those with certain underlying medical conditions.

“If you have an allergy to the vaccine or have certain underlying medical conditions, that is something you should discuss with your primary care physician,” says Dr. Watson. “Other than that, we recommend everyone greater than six months old, including pregnant women, should get the vaccine.”

“This year specifically, there is concern in the United States, and Michigan in particular, because we’ve seen the vaccination rate among kids decrease in the last couple of years by more than 20 percent,” says Dr. Watson. “Last year, less than half of all the children in Michigan were vaccinated from the flu and we had six deaths in children, so it’s absolutely something children should get as well.”

It takes about two weeks for you to start generating the protective antibodies and you build to peak protection levels six weeks after you get the vaccine.
That advocacy is something MidMichigan Health lives and breathes as a health system, too.

“We’re backing that up with actions within our facilities and practicing what we preach,” says Dr. Watson. “We require all of our employees to receive a flu vaccine and if they decline or have allergies and aren’t able to take it, they must wear a mask. That is a policy we've had for several years even before using masks for COVID-19 and still one we use today. The vaccination rate amongst all of the employees last year across the entire MidMichigan Health system was 93 percent, which is really good.”

Getting the flu vaccination

MidMichigan Health has a few options for administering the vaccine, including options that don’t necessarily require you to come to the hospital.

“We recommend that everyone calls and touches base with their primary care provider about how they are administering the vaccine,” says Dr. Watson. “That may mean coming in for an appointment with a nurse, or your primary care physician will be able to tell you when there will be flu shot clinics where they will be administered. Additionally, in some of our geographies we are offering drive thru flu clinics, and your primary care physician can direct you to more information available within your community.”

MidMichigan Health started receiving allotments of the vaccine in early September and will continue receiving and administering throughout the flu season.
“If you have symptoms of flu or COVID-19, you should make that call to your primary care physician or our MidMichigan Health Line number. We will be triaging potential flu patients very similarly to what we've been doing for COVID-19,” says Dr. Watson. “You may not necessarily have to come into an office location, we have telehealth video visits available with our providers. If they determine need to be tested, you potentially will be screened for both flu and COVID-19 and possibly even strep throat, because strep starts to pop up during flu season as well.”

As part of the immunization effort, MidMichigan Health has set up flu vaccination clinics to organize patient flow and maintain social distancing.

While the recommended timing for getting the flu vaccine is in September or October to offer the most protection over the course of flu season, vaccination efforts take place well into February. MidMichigan Health started receiving allotments of the vaccine in early September and will continue receiving and administering throughout the flu season.

Depending on the vaccine and how the actual virus responds, those who receive the vaccine are between 40 and 60 percent less likely to be admitted to the hospital, 60 to 80 percent less likely to end up in the ICU.
“It takes about two weeks for you to start generating the protective antibodies and you build to peak protection levels six weeks after you get the vaccine. So, that is why we recommend September and October to extend that protection for as long as possible,” says Dr. Watson. “Last year, we were still vaccinating people in February, but administering early is definitely the preferred option.”

“The bottom line is, it’s the best thing you can do to protect yourself against the flu,” says Dr. Watson.

For more information about getting the flu vaccine from MidMichigan Health or within your community, see the following resources:

  • For scheduling and questions related to the flu vaccine, current MidMichigan Health patients should call their primary care physician to discuss all available options. A list of future clinic dates will also be made available soon at www.midmichigan.org/flu
  • For more information about establishing care, call the MidMichigan Health Line toll-free at (888) 999-3199.
  • For more information about the flu, visit www.midmichigan.org/flu
  • Students and community members also have two options with Central Michigan University: The CMU Health Clinic, which is open 8-11:30 a.m. and 1-4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday. Please call 989-774-6599 to make an appointment. CMU will also be offering a pop-up clinic with the State of Michigan on Sunday, October 4 and Monday, October 5 at Bovee University Center. You can find more information about those resources here.
  • Additional resources are available at your local health department or pharmacy.
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