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Fewer, milder COVID cases after flu shots

Highlighting the benefits company flu shots can bring to the business.
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Fewer, milder COVID cases after flu shots

Fewer, milder COVID cases after flu shots

19 May 2021

By Gaby Grammeno

People who had a flu shot last flu season were significantly less likely to be infected with COVID-19, a new study shows. And those who did test positive for COVID had fewer complications if they’d had a flu shot. The findings highlight the benefits company flu shots can bring to the business and its personnel.

Flu vaccination and anti-vaxxers

Influenza vaccination – along with other public health measures such as water fluoridation and polio vaccination – has long had its supporters and its detractors. The evidence from research into its effectiveness, however, reveals that while it varies from one person to another, flu vaccination reduces the risk of flu illness by between 40% and 60% during seasons when most circulating flu viruses are well-matched to the flu vaccine.

Anti-vaxxers – a small minority of people who disagree with the use of vaccines – continue to oppose the flu jab, and some actively spread misinformation about the safety of vaccines. In reality, vaccines are one of the safest and most effective health interventions and have had a huge impact on reducing the burden of infectious diseases.

Studies regularly assess and confirm the value of flu vaccination as a public health intervention, especially where the nature of the work involves particular risks of exposure to infection, such among healthcare workers and wherever staff have a lot of contact with the public.

The latest research indicates another benefit, perhaps unexpected, in the form of protection against the COVID-19 virus.

COVID-19 protection

The study by researchers at the University of Michigan reviewed medical records for more than 27,000 patients who were tested for COVID-19 between March and mid-July of 2020. Of the nearly 13,000 who’d received a flu shot in the previous year, 4% tested positive for COVID-19.

Of the 14,000 who hadn't had the flu jab, nearly 5% tested positive for COVID-19. This association was significant, even after controlling for other variables including ethnicity, race, gender, age, BMI, smoking status and other health issues. People who’d had a flu shot were also significantly less likely to need to be admitted to hospital.

How exactly this protection might work is not clear. There could be a direct biological effect of the flu vaccine on the immune system helping it fight against the COVID-19 virus. Or it might be that people who get the flu shot are more health conscious, better-informed and more conscientious about practising social distancing, wearing masks and complying with other relevant public health measures.

In addition to protecting against the flu and COVID, there’s good evidence that a flu shot also reduces the risk of heart attack and hospitalisation due to heart failure.

Employers’ responsibilities for flu vaccinations

To protect workers and others against health risks, employers should follow the standard procedure for risk identification, assessment and control. This includes exploring the possibility that workers could be infected (or could infect others) with the flu of other vaccine-preventable diseases.

Employers of healthcare workers have a duty of care to ensure their employees are protected from vaccine-preventable diseases, and health care workers have a duty to ensure they minimise the risk of passing a preventable disease to their clients, such as hospital patients, who may already be at an increased risk of illness.

The Australian Immunisation Handbook recommends flu shots for all healthcare workers and staff (including students) at nursing homes and long-term care facilities. Most healthcare facilities have policies requiring immunisation to certain vaccine-preventable diseases.

Similar government policies apply to people working with children. The duty of care towards the children means they must be diligent in making sure they don’t pass on vaccine-preventable diseases to the children in their care.

In other industry sectors, a requirement for employees to have flu shots is likely to be more controversial.

Managing vaccination refusal

If you believe on reasonable grounds that a worker’s refusal to be vaccinated raises a serious health risk for anyone, assess the risk in the particular circumstances of the work situation, taking into account how the flu is spread – coughing, sneezing or contact with a contaminated surface.

Where an employee refuses to have a flu shot (or cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons), review work practices to ensure systems of work are best practice in terms of infection control. Providing extra information, instruction and supervision may help, as well as additional cleaning and disinfection of often-touched surfaces and using personal protective equipment, such as masks. In some organisations, there may be scope for adjustments to work placements.

If you believe compulsory flu shots are essential for effective risk control, legal advice may help to determine the legitimacy, consistency with anti-discrimination legislation, and any risks associated with such a policy, in the particular circumstances.

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