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In years past, many people may have waved off the flu shot.

As a doctor, I've heard it all: "I'm too busy." "I don't like needles." "Last year's vaccine wasn't effective." "I got the shot and still got the flu." Or, "It's my decision."

That last statement is certainly true, but it doesn't mean that there aren't consequences to the people around you. Getting a flu shot is more critical than ever. And while the vaccine is not publicly mandated, it's very much a public health issue.

We owe it one another — family, friends, neighbors, even those six feet away at the grocery store — to take this safe, proactive step to limit the spread of the flu.

The flu vaccine takes about two weeks to be fully effective, so getting a flu shot now will help protect you as influenza starts to spread. Why does it matter?

The flu vaccine is one step you can take to help protect yourself in this environment where both the flu and COVID-19 are present. Each can cause severe respiratory illness individually and it is possible to have a dual diagnosis. Even if the flu vaccine isn't always exact, its safety should not be in doubt. And most individuals who receive it either avoid contracting the virus or have a milder case if they do.

On average, the flu hospitalizes more than 200,000 Americans per year. And the CDC reports that more than 1,600 Tennesseans died from influenza during the 2017-2018 season.

Pair that with a pandemic that is still significantly impacting our state and the gravity of the situation is clear. This year, the flu could actually be more dangerous than usual.

That may sound frightening, but let me explain why it's true — and how we can help prevent it.

Our public health care infrastructure and health care system are going to be challenged. The past few months have already tested the limits of health care resources, exhausting front-line providers and commanding many adult hospital beds. A major flu outbreak will only make it worse.

Like COVID-19, the flu is easily transmitted via droplets that result from sneezing, coughing or talking. Adults age 65 and over, pregnant women, young children, and those with a history of asthma, heart disease and stroke, and diabetes are most susceptible to the flu.

Studies have shown a flu shot can reduce the likelihood of catching the flu by 40-60%.

Even if you aren't at high risk, getting vaccinated can help protect those who are.

Vaccines have been proven safe and effective for decades. Consider diseases like polio, which was eradicated in the U.S. thanks to development of a commercial vaccine in 1961. Measles rates dropped for many years after its vaccine was widely accepted beginning in 1963, though we're now seeing a resurgence because some children aren't vaccinated.

Ironically, people following safety precautions for COVID-19 is another reason to worry about flu season. Some may be afraid to visit the doctor or worry there's no room for them in the health care system. So we have to stay as safe as we can.

If you have health insurance, your flu shot is likely covered at no or limited cost. If you don't have insurance, check with your local health department about vaccine availability, including any free vaccines that may be offered in your area.

Let me be clear: the benefits of the flu vaccine outweigh the risks. With the presence of two serious viruses at the same time, we have a safe, simple way to protect our community's health. Protect yourself and your neighbors: get a flu shot as soon as you can.

Dr. Andrea D. Willis is senior vice president and chief medical officer at BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee.

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