With the coronavirus pandemic still in full swing as we head into fall, healthcare providers across the country are bracing for a double-whammy of COVID-19 and influenza.
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As this year’s wave of seasonal flu overlaps with coronavirus cases, there may be a surge of sick patients across the country, crowding doctors’ offices and putting additional pressure on hospitals already treating coronavirus patients.
But there’s good news: while researchers are still searching for a coronavirus vaccine, we already have a widely-available flu vaccine. And getting your flu vaccine this year is vital to not just keeping you and your family healthy, but relieving our over-burdened healthcare system.
To explore more about why it’s so important to get your flu shot, we talked to infectious disease doctor Susan Rehm, MD, about getting vaccinated and what you should know about both the flu and coronavirus heading into winter.
Why a flu vaccine is so important
First of all, you should get a flu shot every year. It’s just good practice, as Dr. Rehm explains. “Influenza is a very serious disease and, every year, around 40,000 or more people die from it. So with any preventable disease, we should do everything we can to protect ourselves.”
But it’s especially important this year, she continues. “We’re going to have influenza and COVID-19 coexisting and there’s a lot of overlaps between the symptoms. We also anticipate that there will be some people coming up who have COVID-19 and influenza at the same time, which would be very devastating and increase the risk of death from one or both of them.”
Part of what would make such a scenario so calamitous, Dr. Rehm says, is that our national healthcare system could be inundated in some regions. “We’ve seen problems in various places because of the COVID-19 surge and if we add influenza on top that, it could overwhelm our capacity and place a further strain on the availability of personal protective equipment (PPE).”
The best way to prevent this, of course, includes getting vaccinated for the flu, she says. With influenza, we’re lucky because there is a vaccine and that will help to prevent part of the disease.”
And she adds, “we’re also fortunate in that all the measures that we’re doing now to try to mitigate COVID-19 — masking, social distancing, and handwashing — are also going to help to reduce the spread of flu.”
Don’t be scared away by COVID-19
Even though the risk of contracting coronavirus remains, it’s important that patients still make it out to a healthcare provider to receive their flu vaccine.
“Healthcare facilities are taking extra precautions to make the environment safe for people who come in,” Dr. Rehm notes. “Masking and social distancing are taking place. And the reality is that the risk of not going in for the vaccine is higher than going in for the vaccine because it is such a safe environment.”
That goes equally for kids, too. Just as it’s important to keep their immunization schedule on track despite the pandemic, it’s also crucial to get them vaccinated for the flu, Dr. Rehm says. “It’s important for children to get the flu vaccine, too, because the circulation of flu in children, if nothing else, puts adults at risk, too.”
“Influenza is a serious disease and it’s unpredictable,” she says, “and otherwise healthy children are unfortunately hospitalized and die every year because of it. So even for normal, healthy children, it’s really important to get vaccinated every year.”
Finally, she adds, “When young children get the vaccine for the first time, they need two doses separated by a few weeks in order to boost their immunity to the point that they’re protected against influenza. Check with your doctor for the specifics.”
The troubling similarities between the flu and COVID-19
What should you should do if you think you have either the flu or COVID-19? Dr. Rehm says, “People who think they have a respiratory illness like COVID-19 or influenza should call their healthcare provider and talk about the symptoms. In some cases, testing may be the next step.”
Influenza and COVID-19 have essentially the same symptoms, so testing is the only way to find out which virus is causing the infection. “I would say there’s really no way to tell them apart based on symptoms,” says Dr. Rehm. While treatment for both is primarily supportive, Dr. Rehm notes that “prescription antiviral medications can be given for influenza.” A variety of treatments for people hospitalized with COVID-19 are under active study and use.
If you’re treating yourself at home, she says it’s important to remain hydrated, monitor both your temperature and breathing, get plenty of rest and isolate yourself from anyone else in your household. “You want to stay in so that you’re not exposing other people to your virus and so that you can reduce the chances of getting a complication,” she adds.
Seriously. Get a flu shot!
Again, you should be getting a flu shot every year but especially this year with the complications from a potential new surge of COVID-19 cases. Dr. Rehm, echoes this, saying, “Influenza is a serious disease, and we know that it occurs every year. We know that hundreds of thousands of people are hospitalized because of influenza. But it’s preventable with a vaccine. It doesn’t take long and it’s one of the best things that you can do to protect yourself.”