Because health experts expect that the coronavirus will start surging at the same time as the flu, critical health-care resources will already be strained with COVID-19 patients.
Why worry about the flu, you may wonder, when there are so many other problems plaguing humanity? Those other problems are precisely why you should worry! Both the flu and COVID-19 are respiratory illnesses that can result in similar symptoms and complications. Because health experts expect that the coronavirus will start surging at the same time as the flu, critical health-care resources will already be strained with COVID-19 patients.
Health columnist Jan Hofmann wrote last month in the New York Times that "even a mild flu season could stagger hospitals already coping with COVID-19 cases." The so-called "twindemic" also poses a double threat to the immune system for individuals who contract both viruses at the same time. Leading infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci states that getting a flu shot will "at least blunt the effect of one of these two potential respiratory infections."
Although not as deadly as COVID-19, influenza remains a significant cause of fatality among older adults. In 2019, the Center for Disease Control reported an estimated 34,000 deaths resulting from the flu, with 75 percent of those occurring in adults over the age of 65. This reinforces what medical experts have long warned the public: that older adults are significantly more susceptible to flu-related complications.
According to the CDC, both COVID-19 and the flu have these symptoms in common:
-- Fever or feeling feverish/ chills
-- Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
-- Sore throat
-- Runny or stuffy nose
-- Muscle pain or body aches
-- Vomiting and diarrhea (though this is more common in children than adults)
With the symptoms so easily confused, a flu outbreak will lead to more people seeking already limited COVID-19 tests. If we can limit flu infections, we can also ensure more COVID-19 tests for those who really need them.
Complications from flu and COVID-19 include:
-- Respiratory failure
-- Acute respiratory distress syndrome (i.e. fluid in lungs)
-- Cardiac injury (e.g. heart attacks and stroke)
-- Multiple-organ failure (respiratory failure, kidney failure, shock)
-- Worsening of chronic medical conditions (involving the lungs, heart, nervous system or diabetes)
-- Inflammation of the heart, brain, or muscle tissues
-- Secondary bacterial infections (i.e. infections that occur in people who have already been infected with flu or COVID-19)
Peak flu season is generally in January and February, but people can get the flu as early as October. It takes two weeks following a flu shot to develop immunity, so the sooner you get your vaccine, the better your chances of being protected against an early outbreak.
This year's vaccine contains the three strains of flu that experts predict will be most virulent. These are: an Influenza A (H1N1) virus, a different Influenza A (H3N2) virus, and an Influenza B virus. The vaccination works by exposing the body to small amounts of the viruses, causing the immune system to develop antibodies.
Getting a flu shot is an important weapon against the flu, but it is never 100 percent effective because flu viruses are always changing and mutating. It is equally important to continue to socially distance and always wear a mask in public spaces.
Flu, like COVID-19, is transmitted through respiratory drops. Sneezing and coughing transmit the virus through the air. Surfaces, such as tables, walls, elevator buttons, doorknobs, and virtually anything that can be touched, may be contaminated with viral particles. Wash your hands as often as possible, especially after spending time out of the house or in physical contact with another person.
- Adam Johnson writes for Youville Assisted Living Residences, member of Covenant Health Systems, a Catholic, multi-institutional health and elder care organization serving New England.