Managing Flu Season During the COVID-19 Pandemic
Three Shepherd Center experts answer questions about how flu season and COVID-19 will impact people in the months ahead.
With flu season gearing up and COVID-19 an ever-present reality, many people are wondering how they will be affected as we move into the fall and winter months. Should they get a flu vaccine? Can they get COVID-19 and the flu at the same time? Are there special precautions to take if they have respiratory issues?
Three experts from Shepherd Center weighed in on these concerns based on what the medical community knows now. They are: Michael Yochelson, M.D., MBA, chief medical officer; Jesse Couk, M.D., medical director of infectious diseases; and Sarah Culberson, RN, CIC, infection control coordinator.
Should you get tested for COVID-19, the flu or both if you feel symptomatic?
Because there is overlap between the symptoms caused by the flu and by COVID-19, it is important to test for both. Importantly, a positive test for one does not rule out the other. Some people can have both at the same time. Testing for COVID-19 is of particular importance because it is more contagious and more likely to cause severe illness than the flu. Contact your doctor if you are having concerning symptoms so that you can discuss what the most appropriate steps are for your situation.
How can people differentiate between COVID-19 and the flu?
Due to the overlap between symptoms, the only way to differentiate between COVID-19 and the flu is by testing for both. Both can cause fever, chills, fatigue, sore throat, muscle pain and body aches, headache, vomiting or diarrhea. COVID-19 is more likely than flu if you are experiencing changes in smell or taste. Both can cause severe disease resulting in shortness of breath, but severe disease is more common with COVID-19.
Is it important to get a flu shot?
It is always important to receive an annual flu shot, but it is especially crucial to receive a flu shot this year. The healthcare system will continue to be strained by COVID-19 during this flu season, and this strain will be compounded by the flu. We can all do our part to reduce this strain by receiving the flu shot.
It is possible to contract COVID-19 and the flu simultaneously, and this may increase the risk for severe disease. Receiving the flu shot decreases the risk of hospitalization from the flu. To read more about fighting the flu, read this article from earlier this year.
Where can people get a flu shot safely?
Most pharmacies will have the flu shot available to the public.
Could the fact that more people are washing hands, wearing masks, avoiding crowds and indoor spaces, and taking other precautions due to COVID-19 help decrease the prevalence of flu this year?
We would anticipate that as long as we continue the precautions we are taking to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, we will also see a reduction in flu cases.
When should people get their flu shots?
The earlier you can get the flu shot, the better. Many healthcare providers and pharmacies have already received this year’s flu shot, and they will continue to become available throughout September. On average, it can take two weeks after receiving the flu shot for it to become fully effective. The goal is to have the flu vaccine before November when flu activity begins to spike. For those that do not receive their flu shot by November, we still continue to recommend the flu shot even toward the end of flu season.
Can the flu vaccine lessen the intensity of the flu if someone still gets it?
The flu shot cannot prevent the flu entirely, but it can decrease the symptoms.
- It can decrease the risk of seeing a doctor for flu symptoms by 40-60%.
- It decreases the risk of hospitalization, ICU admission and death.
- It decreases the risk for exacerbation of underlying illnesses such as heart disease, diabetes or COPD.
- During pregnancy, it decreases the risk for acute respiratory illness by 50%, hospitalization by 40% and can protect the baby for several months after birth.
- It may also protect those around you from becoming sick with the flu.
What do people with spinal cord injuries (SCI), brain injuries, stroke, multiple sclerosis (MS) or other neuromuscular diseases need to think about when it comes to COVID-19 and the flu this year?
There are a few things to consider. Our patient populations should take extra precautions, just like anyone with an underlying health condition. In particular, anybody with respiratory issues or anybody who uses a ventilator can experience more severe respiratory symptoms if they contract either COVID-19 or the flu. Also, if people are taking medications that suppress the immune system, such as some medications for MS, they should take extra precautions.
As flu season begins and COVID-19 remains, we strongly suggest that people who have caregivers ensure that their caregivers also get the flu vaccine. Our patients should arrange to have back-up caregivers whenever possible. That way, if caregivers become sick, they can distance themselves. If that’s not possible, we advise that both the patient and caregiver use face masks, sanitize the home regularly and wash hands often.
Other than the flu vaccine, what else can people do to avoid getting sick this fall and winter?
Wear a mask, socially distance from others, avoid crowds and public indoor spaces as much as possible, and wash your hands.
How will Shepherd Center continue to protect patients in its care during this time?
At Shepherd Center, we have put aggressive measures in place to keep COVID-19 out of the hospital, such as testing patients before admission, testing overnight visitors, limiting caregivers and visitors, screening anyone who comes into the hospital, and enforcing mask-wearing protocols. We also hold annual flu shot clinics for our staff and require staff members to get annual flu shots. We’ll continue these practices until we deem it’s safe to stop them. At this point, we don’t see changing those policies in the near future.
Whether it’s flu, COVID-19 or something else entirely, if you are symptomatic, we ask you not to come to Shepherd Center. We will not be routinely testing for flu on everybody coming to the hospital, but if anyone has a fever or other symptoms, we’ll ask them to go home. For patients, we would ask them to reschedule their appointments. Employees are also instructed to stay home when they have symptoms of flu or COVID-19. We all must work together to create the safest environment for our staff, patients and their families.
Shepherd Center, located in Atlanta, Georgia, is a private, not-for-profit hospital specializing in medical treatment, research and rehabilitation for people with spinal cord injury, brain injury, multiple sclerosis, spine and chronic pain, and other neuromuscular conditions. Founded in 1975, Shepherd Center is ranked by U.S. News & World Report among the top 10 rehabilitation hospitals in the nation. In its more than four decades, Shepherd Center has grown from a six-bed rehabilitation unit to a world-renowned, 152-bed hospital that treats more than 935 inpatients, 541 day program patients and more than 7,300 outpatients each year.