This year will not be an average flu season: Experts warn of a “perfect storm” looming ahead due to the combined presence of influenza and COVID-19. Because of this dual threat, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts announced on Aug. 19 that influenza immunization will be required for all students attending colleges or universities in the state before Dec. 31, unless a medical or religious exemption is provided.
Tufts officials have yet to determine students’ compliance with the order. Due to the pandemic, there are significant barriers to accessing free flu vaccines. While Tufts Health Service provided free flu shots in the past to any student who paid a health fee, social distancing requirements limit Health Service’s capacity to hold flu shot clinics this year. However, the university is currently exploring different options to make flu shots accessible to students.
So far, Tufts students have done a commendable job limiting the spread of COVID-19 on campus by getting tested semiweekly and following health protocols. In order to maintain this positive trend on campus, Tufts students who are able to should prioritize getting vaccinated to limit the spread of the flu this season and protect our community.
As the cold and flu season approaches, it is crucial that Tufts is prepared for a potential “twindemic.” The concurrent threat of influenza and COVID-19 presents a variety of complications and potentially dire consequences. Since the flu and milder cases of COVID-19 induce similar symptoms, including fever, cough, sore throat, fatigue and shortness of breath, it may be particularly difficult to initially distinguish between the two. Additionally, public health officials do not yet know the health outcomes of COVID-19 and flu coinfection, but the results of a simultaneous infection could potentially be severe.
These factors make getting the flu vaccine evermore critical. Getting vaccinated will help preserve health care capacity and resources for those infected with COVID-19. The vaccine could also help reduce the number of COVID-19 tests needed to distinguish between flu and coronavirus symptoms, conserving essential health care resources. Most important, getting vaccinated could reduce the risk of coinfection and save lives. Flu vaccination prevents tens of thousands of hospitalizations each year and reduces the risk of flu-associated hospitalizations among older adults and those with chronic health conditions.
We commend the administration on its efforts to stress the importance of getting vaccinated, instituted in its warning that Tufts will place a registration health hold on the accounts of students who do not comply with the immunization requirement. As Tufts looks into alternatives to on-campus clinics, health officials should consider administering flu shots outside or at multiple locations in order to maintain distancing guidelines. In the meantime, Tufts should continue to support students in getting the vaccine at off-campus locations.
While we currently do not have a COVID-19 vaccine and thus have limited control over preventing COVID-19 infections, we do have control in preventing a flu outbreak on our campus. We urge the Tufts community to comply with the state mandate and get vaccinated as soon as possible. We owe it not only to university health officials who have worked diligently to keep those of us on campus safe, but to the surrounding Medford and Somerville communities as well. It is our civic responsibility to take preventative action to maintain the health of our community.