You May Be Better Protected if You Space Out Your COVID and Flu Shots—Here's Why

Making plans to get your COVID booster and flu shot soon is crucial. Here's what experts recommend.

Doctor cleans a smiling woman's arm before giving her a shot
Photo: fotostorm/Getty Images

Americans are being advised that COVID shots could become an annual tradition much like the flu vaccine. But even though these shots may begin to follow similar timelines going forward, deciding when to get each one this fall may not be so simple.

At a recent White House press briefing government health officials offered some guidance for what the path forward may look like.

"You can get both your flu shot and COVID shot at the same time. It's actually a good idea," Ashish Jha, MD, the White House's COVID response coordinator, said during the White House press conference. "I really believe this is why God gave us two arms—one for the flu shot and the other one for the COVID shot."

This messaging certainly makes vaccination less complicated, but the timelines for these two shots may not actually line up so easily.

Anthony Fauci, MD, Biden's chief medical advisor, advised in the press briefing that those who are eligible should get a COVID booster as soon as possible, but most experts don't recommend flu vaccination until October. So, is it better to get your COVID right now on its own and wait until October to get the flu shot? Or get them simultaneously as recommended?

Experts explain why the date you get vaccinated matters, and what to take into consideration before booking your COVID and flu shot appointments this fall.

Spacing Out Shots to Get Maximum Protection

The question of when to time your vaccinations can be complicated to answer. If you're willing to make two separate appointments, it may be best to get your COVID booster now, and then return to get your flu shot in October, explains Gabriela Andujar Vazquez, MD, an infectious disease physician and associate hospital epidemiologist at Tufts Medical Center.

"What I recommend [to] my patients—which doesn't necessarily fit to everyone, this is just in general—would be to get the COVID-19 bivalent booster now around this time, because there's still COVID circulating and we're coming into fall," Dr. Andujar Vazquez told Health. "The flu vaccine, maybe get it around October, where we know that by that time, it's likely that flu will start picking up in the next weeks to months going into winter."

Though this timeline might give you optimal protection against flu and COVID, there's certainly nothing wrong with getting them at the same time, as many other public health officials have suggested, she added.

"Some people prefer to just get it over with, and that's perfectly fine," Dr. Andujar Vazquez said. "Both options are okay, as long as you get the vaccine."

Though getting both vaccines—at any time or in any order—is certainly better than the alternative of not getting them at all, the protection they offer does wane over time, which is why experts are so strongly suggesting that people get COVID boosters as soon as possible.

Waiting a couple weeks to get your flu shot may mean you'll have a higher degree of protection when flu season hits its peak, which is usually between December and February. For people who are vaccinated against flu, their odds of catching the virus increase by 16% for every 28 days after they first get their shot, a 2019 study found. Those first two weeks post-vaccination are when you get the most protection, Dr. Andujar Vazquez explained, and the immunity naturally wanes.

The worry is that for people who get their flu shot now, their protection may not be as robust by the time flu season kicks into full swing later in the winter.

The Case for Two Shots at Once

The other consideration that makes timing your vaccination so challenging is that experts can only guess at when virus surges might hit. Based on the past two years, we'll likely see some kind of increase in COVID cases this fall and winter, explained Andrew Pekosz, PhD, professor and vice chair in the department of molecular microbiology and immunology at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Though flu is usually at its worst between December and January, there's no guarantee that that peak won't come earlier or later. Last year, flu cases were high much later in the spring than normal, and there are some fears that the flu might be atypical yet again this season.

"Australia and other countries in the Southern Hemisphere had a rough influenza season. It was Australia's worst flu season in five years and it came earlier than any other influenza season, with the exception of the 2009 pandemic," Pekosz said in a press briefing.

The flu season in countries in the Southern Hemisphere are usually indicators of what the U.S. might experience, so it's very possible that if flu does come early this year, it could overlap with a fall surge in COVID cases as well, Pekosz said.

With the timing of the surges being more unpredictable, there's certainly sound reasoning behind getting both shots together—and soon—to be protected, just in case a surge hits early.

Convenience Factor

Another reason to get both shots at once is just sheer convenience. Getting vaccinated requires time and effort out of your day, so it's certainly easier to not have to book multiple appointments. It also may lessen the likelihood of people forgetting to come back for their second shot, too.

"I would think about the influenza vaccine in the same way you're thinking about the bivalent COVID 19 vaccine—both of those are needed, both of those should be scheduled as soon as possible, and ideally at the same time so that one doesn't fall into the trap of getting one [vaccine] and then just forgetting to go back for the other," Pekosz said.

Spacing out the two shots—getting the COVID booster now and waiting until October to get your flu shot—may be your best bet at maximizing your protection. But if you do want to do them at the same time, don't wait, Dr. Andujar Vazquez said.

"Maybe in an earlier cycle, like early October, we might start seeing [flu] cases. It's never wrong to just get it now in September when we usually start seeing some here and there," Dr. Andujar Vazquez said. "Now that we have the bivalent booster and the flu vaccine, it makes sense to just get it this month, and then you're ready for both."

Timeline is Different for Everyone

Though the vaccination timeline for flu and COVID shots is mostly left up to each person's discretion, experts say that people who were recently exposed to COVID should probably wait to get your booster for now.

"Boosters are most effective when there's some time spaced between your initial, either vaccination or infection, and the time that the boosters are given. Two to three months is a good starting point," said Pekosz. "Many immunologists would say that even extending that out to as much as six months would be good to stimulate those memory responses, those responses that are going to be there, be prepared, and ready to respond to you when you are getting infected."

Though when you get the vaccines may vary based on your medical history, schedule, or personal preferences, the most important thing is to get out and get both shots this fall.

"It's just depending on your individual needs. But in general you can get both at the same time," Dr. Andujar Vazquez said. "Of course everyone should get both of them as of now, [now] that we're entering the colder months."

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