AUSTIN (KXAN) — Researchers from the University of Florida believe the influenza vaccine could protect people from severe cases and hospitalizations as a result of the coronavirus.
Their study, published in the Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine, looked at medical records for more than 2,000 people who had received a flu shot in the last year and then were diagnosed with COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.
The researchers noted people who had been vaccinated for the flu were more than two times less likely to be hospitalized for COVID-19 and more than three times less likely to be admitted to an intensive care unit.
“We think this gives people a huge incentive to get a vaccination. It’s a double-win in many ways, because the vaccination is, of course, helping protect you from influenza as well,” said the study’s senior author Arch G. Mainous III, Ph.D.
The data was adjusted for age, ethnicity and comorbidities that can increase the severity of COVID-19. Still, the researchers said more investigation is needed to confirm this association, and Mainous noted the study wasn’t “perfect.”
Local health experts in Austin have urged people to get their flu shot, in order to avoid what could be a “twindemic,” a situation where the flu and coronavirus infections spike in Austin-Travis County.
In a news conference on Monday, Austin Public Health officials called it “added protection.”
“During this very difficult time where we have COVID and flu, the best way to get flu out of the mix is to get your vaccination,” APH Chief Epidemiologist Janet Pichette said. “It covers, most likely, four different strains of flu.”
Still, Texas infectious disease experts told KXAN’s Avery Travis that the University of Florida study was the first “initial indication” of a greater link between the flu vaccine and the coronavirus.
“There had been some speculation that flu vaccine could help boost the immunity in general and therefore could help with preventing COVID-19 infection. I think this is the first real evidence we’ve seen of that,” said Dr. Jan Patterson, an expert at the University of Texas Health Sciences Center in San Antonio.
She noted that it’s not enough evidence to be a direct link yet, or even give us a reason “why” the influenza vaccine would help. Dr. Patterson explained, though, the vaccine presumably is increasing the ability of “natural killer cells” to be activated and fight off both illnesses.
“But there could still be the fact that people who are more likely to get their flu vaccine are more likely to take care of themselves in general,” she said.
She hopes more research will build on this study, and the researchers at the University of Florida echoed that hope.
Regardless of the reason, however, they noted the data was clear.
“The effect is there,” Mainous said. “And it’s very, very strong.”
His research group also reported they will continue to look at whether other types of vaccinations offer a similar benefit, particularly the pneumonia vaccine.
Severe COVID-19 cases
Jimmy Cazin suffered what he calls “pretty harsh symptoms” for ten days after testing positive for COVID-19.
“At night I’d get chills, I’d get body aches,” he described.
Cazin said he has some pre-existing conditions and heart trouble, which is one of the reasons he was being treated with Hydroxychloroquine by a doctor.
“On Day Eleven, my breathing just started to get difficult,” he said, making the decision to go to the emergency room.
There, he was given Remdesivir and plasma from a recovered donor in New York.
“I feel like I had everything they knew about at the time,” he said. “I was preparing myself that I might not make it. I felt a point of utter weakness, like there’s nothing I can do here.”
He noted that he did not receive a flu shot in the year before he contracted the virus, and he was surprised to hear there might be a link.
“The difficult part of this whole experience is we learn as we go. I wish we had known more about it earlier,” Cazin said.
It’s been an uphill battle recovering at home, with some heart trouble and complications landing him back in the hospital several times. Cazin said it has been a humbling experience.
“I’m grateful. I’m really hoping we can learn more and more,” he said.