The Flu Shot and COVID-19 Vaccinations: All Your Questions Answered

The far-reaching effects of COVID-19 are still cascading through our world and our workplaces. All workplaces and work practices have been disrupted in some way. 

As Australian workplaces adjust to ‘the new normal’—with constant tweaks to processes and procedures—some organisations have been struggling to plan for some of the usual yearly programs: like workplace flu vaccination programs

Here’s our ultimate guide to the questions organisations and individuals are asking about the flu shot in 2021. 

We’ve divided these questions into four categories to help you navigate easily:

  1. Questions employers are asking about workplace flu vaccination programs in 2021
  2. Questions employees are asking about the flu shot in 2021
  3. Questions your colleagues ask every year about the flu
  4. Frequently asked questions about the flu vaccine

Questions employers are asking about workplace flu vaccination programs in 2021

Will running a workplace flu vaccination program really make a difference this year? 

In 2020—the year of the COVID-19 global pandemic—the Australian flu season was significantly less pronounced. The number of reported flu cases (around 21,000) was almost 8 times less than the 5-year average (163,000).

Authorities think this was, in part, due to a huge uptake in flu vaccinations. A record 18 million flu vaccinations were available in Australia in 2020 (up from 13 million in 2019).

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed a lot of things. But it has not changed the science-backed health department recommendation to get a flu vaccination. The directive from the federal health department is clear: vaccination is the most important measure to prevent influenza and its complications. 

And for businesses, the main complications of influenza are staff absenteeism (people staying away from work), and staff presenteeism (people remaining at work but under-performing). As a result, it’s estimated the flu costs businesses more than $800* per employee each year.

But, with a flu vaccination program, you can reduce staff absenteeism by 43%** in one day. 

And, as COVID-19 restrictions relax and Australians mix together more , many experts expect that this year’s flu season will be more severe than last year.

Why are flu vaccinations needed annually? 

The strains of influenza virus circulating in a community change each year. 

Experts review the strains of the influenza virus and work out which ones are likely to affect Australians. 

Flu vaccines are then modified to target the most serious or prevalent strains. 

Also, the protection of a flu shot can wane after a few months. That’s why health authorities recommend having the flu shot annually, just before winter. 

How can employers coordinate a flu vaccination program with the COVID-19 vaccination rollout?

A key complexity of 2021 is: the COVID-19 vaccination rollout has begun. 

And experts predict that COVID-19 vaccination timings could overlap to some extent with the usual workplace flu vaccination programs. 

The Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (ATAGI)—the government advisory group for vaccination policy—has advised vaccination providers that: 

  • Co-administration of influenza vaccine on the same day as a COVID-19 vaccine is not recommended.
  • Administration of an influenza vaccine and a COVID-19 vaccine should be a minimum of 14 days apart.

They also recommend that:

  • People in phase 1a for COVID-19 vaccination should receive the COVID-19 vaccine as soon as it is available to them, and then receive their influenza vaccine (separated by at least 14 days). 
  • People in later phases for COVID-19 vaccination should receive their influenza vaccine as soon as it is available, and then receive their COVID-19 vaccine when it becomes available to them.

How are employers managing workplace flu vaccination programs when their workforce is working remotely?

The best way for businesses to manage the workplace vaccination programs is by using a specialist provider—like Vitality Works—to administer the program. 

We give you the ability to service geographically diverse locations. We also make it easy for absent or remote staff to receive their injection, with vaccination vouchers provided so they can receive it, at a Pharmacy, at another time.

We make it easy for your employees to schedule and manage their vaccinations, with on-site vaccination days boosting participation rates by up to 60%. We also provide all  you need to promote your workplace flu shot program, driving awareness and participation throughout your organisation. 

When should we run our workplace flu vaccination program? 

As usual, your employees should have their annual flu vaccination before the start of the flu season. In most parts of Australia, the flu season is typically June to September. Authorities recommend that most Australians get their flu immunisations from April to June/July, to avoid overlap with the COVID-19 vaccination program. 

For most people, the flu vaccine offers some protection over the year. But the best protection happens in the first 3 to 4 months following the flu shot.

Can employers insist staff be vaccinated?

Employers have a duty of care to protect their employees from the harm of any workplace hazard. This includes protecting workers from contagious disease. And in some workplaces—where the risks posed by a virus are amplified—employers can insist their staff be vaccinated. Aged care facilities are an example of this, because there is a risk of passing the flu between staff, which risks residents becoming infected as well. 

Questions employees are asking about the flu shot in 2021

Does the COVID-19 pandemic change when or if I should have the flu shot? 

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed a lot of things. But it has not changed the science-backed health department recommendation to get a flu vaccination. 

Protection from influenza matters because—like COVID-19—the flu can cause serious respiratory illness. Even in healthy adults. 

So, take advantage of workplace opportunities to have a flu shot. 

But please note, that a flu vaccine does not protect you from the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. This year, you should have both a flu shot and a COVID-19 vaccination.

Does the flu vaccine protect against COVID-19?

A flu vaccination does not protect you against COVID-19. But, it will protect you against influenza. And it will help reduce the severity and spread of influenza this winter. 

Conversely, the COVID-19 vaccine does not protect you from catching the flu.

What’s the best time to get a flu vaccination in 2021? 

The best time to be vaccinated against the flu is before the flu season. The flu season—the period in which the flu virus is spreading the most—is normally between June and September in Australia.

The latest flu vaccines become available from March, so aim to get your shot between April and June/July. 

It can take around 2 weeks for the flu vaccination to start protecting you against influenza. And, if you get a vaccination, you are not only protecting yourself, but everyone around you. 

Which should I get first, my flu shot or my COVID-19 vaccination? 

In Australia, there is a special group of medical and scientific experts that guide our healthcare system on vaccinations.  They are called The Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (ATAGI). 

This year, ATAGI recommend that:

– People in phase 1a for COVID-19 vaccination should receive the COVID-19 vaccine as soon as it is available to them, and then receive their influenza vaccine (separated by at least 14 days). 

– People in later phases for COVID-19 vaccination should receive their influenza vaccine as soon as it is available, and then receive their COVID-19 vaccine when it becomes available to them.

Should the flu shot and the COVID-19 vaccine be given together, or separately? 

The ATAGI has advised vaccination providers that: 

– Co-administration of influenza vaccine on the same day as a COVID-19 vaccine is not recommended.

– Administration of an influenza vaccine and a COVID-19 vaccine should be a minimum of 14 days apart.

What is ‘Herd Immunity’, and does it apply to the flu?

‘Herd immunity’—also called community immunity—happens when enough people in a community are immune to a virus and so the virus stops spreading. 

The best way to get community immunity is through vaccination. 

Herd immunity can also develop if lots of people are infected by a virus. But allowing a virus to infect people can risk unnecessary severe illness and death. So, it is not an ethical strategy: especially for viruses that can be very harmful. 

You may have heard the term ‘herd immunity’ in the media in relation to COVID-19, but it applies to any infectious disease: from the measles to the flu. 

How do I join my workplace flu vaccination program if I’m not working in the office? 

Before 2020, workplaces offered on-site vaccination days so that employees could easily receive the flu shot. But, post-pandemic, many more workplaces have a mix of on-site employees and remote workers. How can you make sure you get your shot?

In 2021, many organisations will still run on-site vaccination days. Getting your flu shot in your workplace is worthwhile because it’s very convenient and set up to minimise any risks of catching the flu. 

But a workplace flu shot program doesn’t ignore remote or absent staff. If you miss the on-site day, a good program operator—like Vitality Works—will offer vaccination vouchers that make it easy for you to get your flu shot, in a Pharmacy outlet, at a time convenient to you. 

Can I refuse to have the flu vaccine?

Having a flu vaccination may or may not be a requirement in your workplace. It is best to ask your Human Resources manager or department to clarify if vaccination is mandatory. 

In some workplaces, viral spread could result in serious harm to workers or others who are in the workplace (such as children, the infirm or the elderly). These workplaces could require that workers are vaccinated. 

For other workplaces, it is not as clear-cut. You may refuse to have a vaccination if you have reasonable grounds to do so, such as: 

– where risks to others can be minimised through social distancing and other measures (like working from home) 

– having medical conditions that preclude vaccination. 

Again, it’s best to talk with HR if you are unsure. 

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Questions your colleagues ask every year about the flu

What is the flu?

The flu is a highly contagious respiratory illness caused by influenza viruses.  There are different types of influenza, including influenza virus A, B and C. Influenza A is the only type that causes widespread flu outbreaks. Flu symptoms include: – fever and chills – runny nose or sneezing – cough or sore throat – headache – body aches – vomiting and diarrhoea (more common in children). Symptoms emerge around 1-3 days after infection and can last for a week or more. It spreads easily from person to person. Most influenza infections happen in the winter months (June to September in Australia).  The flu is not normally dangerous; however, it is serious because it could lead to: – bronchitis – croup – pneumonia – ear infections – heart and other organ damage.

What’s the difference between the common cold and the flu?

The flu is not the same as a common cold – though some of the symptoms overlap. The table below gives a snapshot of the differences between the symptoms of the flu and the symptoms of a common cold. 
Symptoms Influenza
Symptom onset 1-3 days after infection
Common Cold
Gradual onset of symptoms
Fever Common Rare
Cough Common Common
Sore throat Common Common
Fatigue Common Sometimes
Aches and pains Common No
Headaches Common Common
Congestion Sometimes Common
Sneezing No Common

The common cold is caused by a different type of virus: rhinoviruses (there are more than 200 types of rhinovirus). 

How do we catch the flu?

The influenza virus spreads very easily from person to person. The virus is present in the respiratory fluids of someone with the flu, so you can catch it if:

– you breathe in the air/droplets after an infected person coughs or sneezes near you

– if you come into direct contact with fluid from an infected person’s coughs or sneezes

– you touch a contaminated surface with the flu virus on it, and then touch your mouth, eyes or nose.

How serious is the flu?

Most people who get the flu are quite sick for a few days with fever, aches and pains, and a sore throat. Most also recover after a week or so, without lasting effects.  

But the flu causes serious illness in some people. A serious case of influenza can lead to hospitalisation, and sometimes death. For example, in 2019, there were more than 800 influenza-related deaths in Australia. 

How can you lower your risk of catching the flu?

Getting a flu shot is your best protection against getting the flu. 

You can also stop the spread of the flu by adopting these—now familiar—public health measures:

– Wash your hands with soap and water for 20 seconds (or use an alcohol-based hand sanitiser).

– Cover your nose and mouth when coughing and sneezing. Use a tissue or your elbow, not your hands.

– Avoid close contact with people unwell with cold or flu-like symptoms. Stay home if you have these symptoms.

– Avoid touching your face and avoid shaking hands with others.

Maintain a physical distance of 1.5 metres from others as much as possible, and avoid crowded places.

Frequently asked questions about the flu vaccine

How effective is the flu vaccine?

The flu shot is effective. Around 50-60% of healthy adults (under 65 years) will be protected from the influenza virus if they have a vaccination. That means there will be a small proportion who catch the virus after getting the vaccine. 

The level of protection can be higher or lower depending on:

– the severity of the yearly influenza virus strains

– your age

– an underlying medical condition that lowers your innate immunity.

But any protection from the flu is worthwhile. And protection is particularly important for high-risk individuals such as nursing home residents. 

What are the benefits of the flu vaccine?

Obviously, the main benefit of the flu vaccine is reducing your risk of becoming either mildly or seriously ill. 

But getting the flu can cause other inconveniences like:

– having to take time off work because you are too sick 

– having to off work to take time off to care for a sick child

– missing out on important social engagements.

So, having the flu vaccination can save you from lost productivity, lost opportunities and even just from feeling miserable.

What’s more, if you don’t catch the flu, you can’t spread the flu. 

Is the flu shot dangerous?

Serious side effects to the flu shot are rare. And authorities are carefully monitoring the safety of vaccines. AusVaxSafety conducts annual surveys of people who’ve had the flu shot. 

In 2020, following the flu shot:

94.5% of those surveyed reported no adverse event

5.5% of those surveyed reported a side effect

0.3% reported having to visit a doctor or emergency department.

You can visit AusVaxSafety for further information.

What side effects am I likely to experience after being immunised?

Just like other medicines, vaccines can have side effects. The most common side effects include:

– mild fever

– headache

– muscle and joint pain

– injection site reactions. 

These usually happen in the first three days following vaccination. 

Can flu vaccines cause influenza?

You can only get the flu from a live strain of influenza virus (influenza A, B or C).

Flu vaccines do not contain a live strain of influenza, so you cannot get the flu from a flu shot.  

In some people, the flu shot may cause mild side effects like aching and headache. These side effects are a sign that your body is preparing its immune defence against the flu if and when you come into contact with it.

Are there particular groups of people who should not have the flu shot?

The only group of people who must not have a flu shot are those who’ve had a severe allergic reaction (anaphylaxis) following a previous flu shot. 

You must speak with a doctor before having your flu shot if you:

– have egg allergies or sensitivity

– have latex allergies or sensitivity

– have Guillain-Barré syndrome

– receive immunotherapy for cancer

Are there particular groups of people who should have the flu shot?

Some groups of people can have very serious, even life-threatening, symptoms if they get the flu:

– those aged 65 years and over

– pregnant women

– Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people over 6 months of age

– children between 6 months and 5 years

– those with a range of chronic conditions, such as:

    – heart disease

    – coronary artery disease

    – asthma and COPD 

    – diabetes

    – kidney disease

    – multiple sclerosis

    – epilepsy

    – HIV 

    – cancer 

The government considers these groups at the most risk, so provides free flu shots for any individual in one of these groups. 

And even if you are not in one of these groups, remember: if you get a vaccination, you are not only protecting yourself, but everyone around you. You can prevent the spread of the flu to vulnerable people, like those who: 

– can’t have the vaccine 

– don’t respond strongly to vaccination

– have low immunity. 

What should I do if I experience an adverse reaction to the flu vaccine?

Tell your doctor or pharmacist if you notice anything that may be making you feel unwell following your flu shot. Common side effects include:

– mild fever

– headache

– muscle and joint pain

– injection site reactions. 

Tell your doctor immediately, or go to the emergency department if you experience signs of a severe allergic reaction (anaphylaxis):

– skin rash 

– itching

– shortness of breath

– swelling of the face, lips or tongue, which may cause difficulty in swallowing or breathing.

After you have received medical advice for any side effects you experience, you can report side effects to the Therapeutic Goods Administration online at www.tga.gov.au/reporting-problems. By reporting side effects, you can help provide more information on the safety of this medicine.

Should you get the flu shot if you had an allergic reaction in the past?

You must not have a flu shot if you’ve had a severe allergic reaction (anaphylaxis) to the flu shot in the past.

Tell your doctor, pharmacist or the administrator of your flu shot if you’ve had any other allergic reactions in the past. They may need to take special precautions.

Flu vaccines are grown in eggs.  But, with new vaccine manufacturing methods, the amount of egg remaining (after the vaccine is extracted from the growth material) is small. So, most people with egg allergies can have the vaccine. It’s essential to check with your doctor beforehand. 

In Australia, flu vaccines are latex-free, so they are safe for people with a latex allergy or sensitivity. But check with your doctor before you have the vaccine.  

Disclaimers

All Vitality Works content is created and published online for informational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical or legal advice and should not be relied on as health or personal advice.

Always seek the guidance of your doctor or other qualified health professional with any questions you may have regarding your health or a medical condition. Never disregard the advice of a medical professional, or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website.

 *Research studies have indicated that an employer-provided flu vaccination program was estimated to save between $82 and $882 per employee per year

**Scientific research shows flu vaccination can reduce the risk by 70-90% in healthy people, which could translate to a 43% reduction in workplace absenteeism