UF researchers find those who get flu vaccine less likely to be hospitalized with COVID-19

There’s new motivation to get your flu shot this season. Studies are finding that the flu vaccine might protect against severe complications from COVID-19.

University of Florida Health researchers just published a study in the Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine that found a strong link between the flu shot and staying out of the hospital with the coronavirus.

“The flu vaccine still does all the things it normally does for the flu, which is why every year, primary care doctors tell you go get your flu shot,” said Dr. Nicholas Dorsey, a researcher on the study and the assistant professor for community health and family medicine at the University of Florida. “Now you add this extra layer that maybe there’s some protection from COVID as well in the severity of the disease, so I think it’s a two for one shot.”

Researchers said they reviewed patient data for over 2,000 Floridians who got the flu shot and later ended up with COVID-19.

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“What we found was that the people who had had an influenza vaccination within the last year were two times less likely to be admitted to the hospital if they got COVID and more than three times less likely to go to the ICU,” said Dorsey.

Dr. Dorsey and fellow researcher Arch Mainous said less severe cases lead to fewer people potentially overwhelming hospitals.

Americans are not the only scientists looking at the connection between the flu shot and the coronavirus. Researchers in the Netherlands also published early findings in the Scientific American Journal on what they discovered about healthcare workers treating patients on the frontlines. The European study found doctors and nurses who already had the flu shot were less likely to contract COVID-19.

UF researchers said their study was broader and different in another key way.

“Ours was you already have COVID-19. How do we find out whether it’s going to keep you from having a severe illness?” said Mainous, a UF professor in health services research, management and policy.

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If you’re wondering how and why, epidemiologists following these studies say that’s a question still being answered.

“Why does this work is not really clear. We think that generally, any vaccine but especially flu and measles seem to turn our immune system on and make it alert to foreign invaders,” said Dr. John Sinnott, an epidemiologist with Tampa General Hospital and the University of South Florida. “What you’re doing is getting a little bit of protection against COVID we think but a lot of protection against the flu. So this is the best advertisement for the flu vaccine I’ve seen in a while.”

So as doctors warn of the dangers and unknowns during a pandemic, they are urging people to get vaccinated against the flu.

“34,000 people died of influenza in the United States last year. So I sure hope this is a push to get people to get their flu shot,” said Mainous.

UF researchers said they believe their study will open more doors for research linking the flu shot and COVID-19, like why it works out that way and for how long.