With the flu season approaching and the COVID-19 pandemic persisting, there’s already a catchy term to describe what could happen during the winter months.
The flu and COVID-19? What can you do to fight back? The local medical community offers a clear initial strategy. Get your annual flu shot — now.
Tim Hendrix, medical director for all AdventHealth Centra Care locations (including the Wesley Chapel facility), said flu season officially begins Nov. 1, but the public should move urgently.
“We will start seeing cases in October,’’ Hendrix said. “If you look at the pattern historically, the reportable cases start creeping up in October. If you get to Thanksgiving and you haven’t gotten your flu shot, it’s too late. You really need to focus on now. Now is the time before the cases increase.
“Basically, you’re dealing with two epidemics. Our concern is overwhelming capacity at the hospitals and doctor’s offices with both COVID patients and flu patients. Every year, flu puts a strain on our system. We know that, and we’re prepared for that surge. But, now we have two different viruses to deal with, and it can put an even bigger drain on the system and make a lot more people sick,” Hendrix said.
Mark Vaaler, chief medical director of St. Joseph’s Hospital-North in Lutz, said he’s also worried about an overtaxed medical system.
“If we have a bad flu season and another peak of COVID, if they happen at the same time, we certainly could face a real shortage of beds,’’ Vaaler said. “With our policy of quarantining and sending people home and the potential shortage of health care workers, even if we have beds available, the other concern is having enough workers to staff those beds.
“The best thing we can do is continue our social distancing and masking. That should help for the flu and COVID. I’m hopeful people will not forget the lessons we have learned, because those practices will mitigate both illnesses. And, of course, you need to get that flu shot as soon as possible,’’ Vaaler said.
In a normal year, anywhere from 30% to 50% of Americans get flu shots from doctor’s offices, medical centers or retail pharmacies. Hendrix and Vaaler agree that this year’s percentage needs to increase exponentially.
With the heavy attention given to COVID, flu shot awareness could be at an all-time high. There’s good news from the Southern Hemisphere, where Australia has reported a lighter flu season during its winter months. And that is partially due to COVID precautions. But, it shouldn’t prompt a false sense of security.
“I never try to predict a flu season,’’ Hendrix said. “This season will be more variable. We got through the (COVID) surge in April, then Memorial Day hit, and I never thought we’d be where we are now with the number of cases that we’re seeing.
“We cannot model ourselves after Australia or South Africa and hope to have the same type of low flu seasons. Our behaviors are different. Our school years are different. We’re trying to open our schools back up and get our kids back in school,” he said. “Those factors will affect how the flu season looks.’’
Vaaler said he thinks the rise of COVID has been a great advocate for flu shot awareness.
“All the talk about COVID will not go away until we get a vaccine, so hopefully people will realize the only way to control the flu is to get the vaccine,’’ Vaaler said. “As far as completely preventing you from getting the flu, it’s not 100% effective as most people know. But, if you had the vaccine, it still mitigates the severity of the flu. There’s absolutely no reason not to get the flu vaccine.
“Oh, there’s inherent skepticism we as Americans have. Some people just don’t like being told what to do or how to do it. I haven’t seen that talk dissipate. There are always people who say they took the vaccine and still got the flu or they claim they got the flu from the vaccine itself. Those things are not true. The vaccine has great value and never more than in the year like we are currently experiencing.’’
This flu season might be confusing
Hendrix and Vaaler said the Twindemic year could have new twists. What if someone catches the flu and COVID-19 at the same time? What if they get sick and aren’t certain about which virus was contracted?
It can be confusing because the flu and COVID-19 have similar symptoms. The most obvious signs of differentiation are COVID’s tendency to prompt lack of smell and lack of taste, along with heightened aching and fatigue.
“We know co-infection can happen,’’ Hendrix said. “When COVID-19 started (roughly in February), we started seeing people with COVID and influenza. Those people got through it OK, but having two different viruses is never a good thing. The risk of complications is higher with co-infections, and it’s another reason to get a flu shot.’’
“The scary thing about it is you can get both of them,’’ Vaaler said. “You can also get one, get better, then get the other. And, the most serious part is it adversely affects our most vulnerable populations. This is absolutely the year we need to push for everyone to get their flu shot. By getting as many people vaccinated as possible, it can really help the situation.’’
By Joey Johnston
Published September 30, 2020