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Entering the Flu Season During A Pandemic: What You Should Know

Published in Family Medicine, Infectious Diseases, For the Health of It Author: Kimberly Tjaden,MD

With the temperatures changing along with the leaves, we are entering flu season. This year, an added complication to the flu season: It will happen during a global pandemic. Family Medicine Physician Kim Tjaden, MD, helps to sort out what people need to know about these two viruses and how you can protect yourself from both.

What are some distinct differences between the seasonal flu and COVID-19?

COVID-19 may take longer to develop symptoms — up to 2 weeks after exposure. Influenza usually develops 1-4 days after exposure. Both can have varying degrees of illness from mild to severe.

The symptoms are very similar between COVID and influenza, but loss of taste and smell is unique to COVID.

We have antiviral medication and a vaccine for influenza. These can shorten the course of the illness or prevent it all together. We have some treatments for COVID, but most are still in the research stage. There is no cure for either. Prevention is the best course of action.

COVID-19 seems to have a higher mortality rate. There is still a lot of unknowns because we don’t yet have a sense of how many people test positive with mild symptoms who will go on to have long-term health consequences. There seems to be a higher hospitalization rate with COVID, especially in older people, those with chronic disease and obesity, and people of color.

Coronavirus vs. the flu: Which is a greater threat?

They are both dangerous to older adults with underlying health conditions. Because coronavirus is more easily spread and many people carry it without symptoms, it has the possibility of making more people ill. COVID-19 is more severe than influenza and the two together could be especially dangerous.

Will both viruses be around, simultaneously, in the fall and winter?

There is no end in sight for the coronavirus. Influenza often starts spreading in late fall but has come as late as early January. We will very likely be dealing with both this winter.

Can I have COVID-19 and the flu at the same time?

Yes. Outcomes appear to be worse for people who have them simultaneously.

How serious is the threat of a “twindemic?”

If we have a severe flu season and further surges in COVID cases, we could see health clinics and hospitals overwhelmed and necessary supplies dwindle. This also would stress the folks working in health care needed to care for patients from doctors and nurses to respiratory techs and housekeeping staff.

Is it possible that a flu vaccine could protect me against COVID-19?

No. The flu vaccine will prevent or mitigate influenza.

Will there be changes in how and where to get the flu vaccine?

Influenza vaccine will be given by many CentraCare clinics in a drive-thru format. This will prevent folks from having to come into clinics and will be much more convenient. We also offer the flu vaccine to patients in clinic.

Is the timing of getting my flu shot important?

The flu vaccine begins working about three weeks after it is given. You want to get the vaccine early enough that you will have time to build an immune response.

What do we know about the effectiveness of this year’s vaccine?

We do not know. However, from previous years’ experience, we know that it can reduce the risk of hospitalization and death by 50%. It is not perfect, but it is low cost and has few side effects.

Should a flu vaccine be given to someone with suspected or confirmed COVID-19?

Yes. I recommend waiting until most symptoms have resolved to avoid confusion about symptoms of COVID verses side effects of the flu vaccine.

Can masking and practicing “social distancing” for the coronavirus make us less likely to get hit hard by the flu?

Yes. This may help us mitigate the flu season. However, as we have seen, not all the population feels the need to practice these simple lifesaving strategies.

Is there a test that can detect both flu and COVID-19?

No. However, they both require a nasal swab that can be done at the same time.