Each fall, Cornell partners with Wegmans Pharmacy to offer free flu vaccinations to students at various campus locations from September to November. With the ongoing pandemic impacting Cornellians’ daily lives, getting the flu vaccine this year is just as critical as in any other year for all individuals, according to Cornell physicians.
The flu, also known as influenza, may manifest similar symptoms to COVID-19, according to Dr. Kristen Marks, an infectious disease physician at Weill Cornell and principal investigator for clinical trials of the Moderna and Novavax COVID vaccines.
Marks said the two illnesses generate similar symptoms of fever, cough, sore throat and headache. She added, however, that the flu does not cause as much nasal congestion as COVID-19. It is also possible to catch both viruses at the same time, which may lead to more intense symptoms.
According to Marks, while college students as a whole are not the most vulnerable population to get a severe flu case, flu vaccinations are still essential to maintaining a healthy campus population.
According to The New York Times, getting a flu shot remains important as concerns over dwindling hospital capacities, as well as relaxed mask mandates, could lead to additional burdens for the nation’s health care system already strained with COVID patients.
“When you’re talking about trying to prevent those severe cases, you really want to target the extremes of age, immunocompromised [and] pregnant women,” Marks said. “But vaccinating college students can prevent spread, which can protect those people.”
Marks added that while no vaccine offers perfect protection against illness, getting vaccinated still benefits individuals through the effects of collective community protection.
“There is no vaccine that perfectly protects yourself, but if you protect your community, you benefit because there’s fewer [cases],” Marks said.
Dr. Jada Hamilton, interim medical director for Cornell Health, said that vaccination is key to reducing flu spread, in addition to alleviating limited hospital resources.
“Getting your flu vaccine benefits the whole campus community by helping to reduce the spread of influenza on campus, and freeing up medical services for students who may be exposed to COVID,” Hamilton said.
Despite the importance of vaccinating the community against the flu, the University has not mandated the flu vaccine this year but rather “strongly recommends” it — a shift from the flu vaccine requirement in fall 2020.
After the past few months during which community members have returned to local and international travel, Marks said she expects a more normal flu season, indicated by more cases and flu activity, unlike last year’s milder one.
“What we really want to do is keep people out of the hospitals and keep people from getting secondary pneumonias from flu and ending up in the ICU [or] hospital, or dying,” Marks said. “For both viruses, that’s what the vaccines are designed for and that’s why they think it is equally important this year as any other year.”
However, according to Hamilton, students have been receptive to Cornell Health’s flu vaccine messaging, as Cornell Health recorded a high volume of students getting inoculated against the flu virus, potentially due to students’ practice of public health measures over the past year.
“I think practicing strategies that help prevent COVID has primed students to prioritize other healthy behaviors like flu vaccination,” Hamilton said.
Marks added that all flu vaccines this year — similar to other years — are quadrivalent, meaning they protect against four strains of the flu. There are also variations in the types of doses available — regular, high and thimerosal-free — that are mentioned on Cornell Health’s website and aimed toward specific communities.
Marks explained that the high dose is meant to increase the immune response among individuals 65 years of age and older, and the thimerosal-free dose is meant for those who have allergies to the thimerosal ingredient or opt to get this preservative free vaccine out of choice. Individuals opt out of thimerosal ingredients due to its rare side effects such as redness and swelling.
While some may be wary of interactions between the flu vaccine and COVID vaccine reducing their efficacies, Marks dismissed these concerns.
“There is no concern for the reduction in efficacy of either one,” Marks said.
Although it is safe and effective to get the COVID-19 and flu shot on the same day, Marks said, scientists are currently researching a combination of these two shots.
Similar to the Tetanus, Diphtheria and Pertussis vaccine that is required for Cornell students, the COVID booster and flu combo shot will allow for people to receive one vaccination with the same effects of two separate ones to increase efficiency and maximize the number of vaccinations in a given period of time.
Students, faculty and staff can register here to book a flu vaccination appointment. There will be clinics at the College of Veterinary Medicine and at Willard Straight Hall on Oct. 13 and 22, respectively.