With flu season underway and COVID-19 continuing to evolve, there’s a need for action — both on the part of individuals and governments — to keep communities safe this fall, say Brock University experts.
Brock immunologist Adam MacNeil and political theorist and legal scholar Alison Braley-Rattai are weighing in on ways to increase protection for Canadians during the season when sickness often rears its head.
Providing clarity about whether people vaccinated against COVID should also get a flu shot, MacNeil explains that the immune system recognizes the influenza and SARS-CoV-2 viruses as being two distinct entities based on the three-dimensional structure of each. Therefore, flu and COVID vaccines do not overlap, he says.
The latest COVID vaccine is ‘bivalent,’ which means the booster targets the original strain plus subvariants arising from the Omicron strain, giving the immune system what MacNeil calls a “competitive edge.”
The Associate Professor of Health Sciences says people often think of COVID-19 as being a ‘bad flu,’ since COVID and flu symptoms can appear similar, and both are spread through aerosols and droplets.
But COVID has a more invisible side that can cause problems in other tissues and organs that may persist after infection, he says. This is thought to happen in part by causing inflammation of the blood vessels, or vasculitis, and by frequently finding its way into more places, including the brain and heart.
“To give yourself the best possible protection against the expected surge in influenza and SARS-CoV-2 this fall, do yourself and your community a favour and get both vaccines as soon as you are eligible, wear a well-fitting N95 respirator when in crowded indoor locations or when ventilation and air filtration is poor, and practise distancing,” MacNeil says.
Public health officials, he says, predict that the coming fall and winter will be “very challenging,” given Omicron’s infectiousness and ability to evade vaccine protection that performed well against the Delta variant last fall, in addition to the return to pre-pandemic behaviours.
“Layer your protection by wearing a mask,” he says. “Layers are the hottest trend for a healthy fall and winter in 2022 and 2023.”
MacNeil offers further insights in an article he wrote earlier this year for The Conversation.
She says several recent studies show that, owing to heightened transmission, children’s susceptibility to SARS-CoV-2 has been rising over the pandemic, increasing the possibility of severe outcomes.”
Braley-Rattai says COVID-19 vaccine uptake among Ontario’s children is relatively low compared to adults. She explored the issue in an article in The Conversation earlier this month, where she argued that, to increase vaccine uptake, the provincial government should add COVID-19 to the list of “designated diseases” in its Immunization of School Pupils Act.
Recent research has also been done in ‘nudge literature’ about how to encourage people toward a particular end, particularly in the areas of childhood vaccination, and, more recently, regarding COVID-19 vaccines, she says.
Braley-Rattai says the ‘nudge literature’ describes ways of increasing routine vaccine uptake in general, including early intervention, targeted information campaigns, automatic reminders, individualized follow-ups and easier access.
But vaccination alone is not enough, she says, adding COVID-19’s ability to mutate may make vaccination “increasingly less important than controlling infection itself.”
“Here’s the rub: It makes little sense to include COVID vaccines under designated diseases without other measures to reduce infections, like air quality standards, masking, and better testing and tracing,” says Braley-Rattai.
“Governments have abandoned the notion of public health for a ‘you do you’ approach which is, frankly, unconscionable given the long-term implications of infections for both individuals and society,” she says.