Local physicians and pediatricians emphasized that most everyone needs to head out and get their flu vaccinations this fall now more than ever as the COVID-19 pandemic continues on into the nearing fall season.
Influenza, which peaks in cases each year during the colder fall and winter months, causes hundreds of thousands of hospitalizations and tens of thousands of deaths each year in the U.S. alone. As people approach this year’s flu season, however, they are met with the threat of another contagious and potentially dangerous disease — COVID-19.
Luckily, as local medical experts pointed out, most everyone has access to a mostly reliable vaccine for influenza. Although the flu is constantly changing and developing new strains and flu seasons are often unpredictable, Dr. Jim Morrow, with Morrow Family Medicine in Cumming, said that the vaccine is usually very effective.
“Sometimes they don’t hit the nail on the head and the vaccine is not as effective, but if you get a vaccine and the strain of virus that you get exposed to is in the vaccine, you’re not going to get the flu,” Morrow said. “The effectiveness is very, very good against specific strains.”
Dr. Nandor Kalli, a pediatrician with the Georgia Highlands Medical Center, said that those who do not receive their influenza vaccine are more likely to suffer complications when sick with the virus, and he said that those who have died from the disease are often also those who have not gotten the vaccine.
Without a current vaccine or treatment for the novel coronavirus, Kalli said people need to be extra mindful of their health right now and what they can do to avoid illness.
“We really don’t know what’s going to happen, but we have to be very cautious,” Kalli said. “And since we do not currently have a vaccine for the coronavirus, then I believe we should try to protect ourselves not only against the flu, but those children that are due for any other vaccine that protects against any viral or bacterial respiratory infection.”
Morrow and Kalli both said that it is likely that individuals will be able to contract both the flu and COVID-19, which have similar mild symptoms, at the same time. Kalli said that it is not uncommon for people to contract more than one respiratory disease at once, causing further complications.
“In order to be on the safer side, we should all get the flu vaccine not only to protect ourselves, but to protect those who are at risk of having complications,” Kalli said. “Especially those people who have elderly people at the house or that have conditions such as diabetes or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and such.”
Morrow said that most everyone over the age of six months should get a flu vaccination, and he said that it would be best, especially for those who are older or who are most at risk, to wait until late September or October to get their vaccine. The flu vaccine usually lasts around six months, so getting the shot later on can guarantee that it will last through the peak of the season, which Morrow said can sometimes last all the way until April.
Other than the potential to contract both COVID-19 and the flu, Morrow said that one change in this year’s flu season that especially those in the medical community will have to look out for is testing.
“If you go to the doctor with flu-like symptoms during flu season, I think it’s going to be important for us to test patients for both,” Morrow said. “You can’t just test for the flu and stop and say, ‘Oh you have the flu. Take this medication.’ Which we luckily have for the flu. But you also have to do a COVID test to see if they also have COVID-19.”
Dr. Samantha Benson, with Internal Medicine Associates of Johns Creek at Northside Hospital, said that accurate, rapid testing for COVID-19 developed by Abbott Labs will, fortunately, be available as early as September.
With rapid testing, Benson said that if patients go to see their doctor about flu-like symptoms, they will be able to test for COVID-19 and get results back before deciding whether or not it is safe to bring them inside of the building with other patients for further treatment.
“You’ll swab them for that. You’ll get a result in anywhere between 5-13 minutes. If they’re negative, then you can bring them into your office and figure out what’s wrong with them instead of having to wait 10 days for a test,” Benson said. “That’s kind of how we’re going to manage it in our practice.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has also developed a test that will be able to provide both influenza and coronavirus test results.
While some continue to worry about the upcoming flu season, Morrow and Benson both said that extra precautions that many are taking right now as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic may actually result in a better flu season this year.
“The same precautions that protect you from COVID-19 will protect you from influenza,” Morrow said. “So the hope is that if there’s a silver lining to a pandemic ever, it might be that the flu season won’t be too bad because people are in the mode of distancing, and hand washing, and not going to work when you’re sick and this kind of thing. Because those are the things that have always made the flu spread so badly.”
Kalli agreed that, during the fall and winter months, individuals should continue to wash their hands frequently and wear a mask while they are out and around others.
Many still agree, however, that the most important and obvious precaution people can take this season is the flu vaccine.
“Everyone over the age of 6 months should get a flu vaccine in the month of October,” Morrow said. “Period.”
For more information about the 2020-21 flu vaccine, visit the CDC’s website.