Last flu season, area hospitals saw record lows of hospitalized influenza patients because of mask mandates and other safety precautions implemented amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
And with the season fast approaching yet again as the COVID-19 delta variant surges on, area health experts say vaccinations against the two viruses and continued safety measures are critical for preventing the spread of both diseases.
“What people can do to help us ... is make sure they are taking precautions in spreading any kind of virus, whether it’s flu or COVID,” said Dr. Kathleen McGraw, chief medical officer at Brattleboro Memorial Hospital.
If this year’s influenza season is severe — which can be caused by inadequate vaccination rates, more virulent strains, or both — emergency departments and intensive-care units could become strained with flu and COVID-19 patients.
Influenza, which most commonly circulates in late fall through early spring, is a respiratory infection spread when people come into close contact with others who have the virus and inhale airborne droplets or touch contaminated surfaces, similar to how COVID-19 is transmitted.
The onset of flu begins suddenly, accompanied by achy muscles, a severe cough and significant fatigue.
Several COVID-19 symptoms are very similar, such as fever or chills, shortness of breath and muscle or body aches. Loss of taste or smell, though, is specific to COVID-19.
The flu and COVID-19 both have varying degrees of symptoms, ranging from asymptomatic to severe. However, COVID-19 has a higher death toll, and the long-term implications of the disease are still unknown.
Mild flu symptoms can usually be treated at home, according to Dr. Aalok Khole, an infectious disease physician at the Keene hospital, but it’s recommended that people get tested for COVID-19 just in case.
For more severe symptoms, like shortness of breath or high fever, he said you should call your primary-care provider or local walk-in clinic for guidance.
It’s also possible to have the flu and COVID-19 at the same time, Khole added, and it’s unknown if those who have influenza are more susceptible to contracting COVID-19.
At Cheshire Medical Center, there wasn’t a single flu case last year, according to Khole.
“It’s not like we weren’t testing. We absolutely were. But not even one case — that’s unheard of,” he said in an email.
Brattleboro Memorial Hospital also saw a very low number of cases, McGraw said.
“It was really phenomenal. It was the lowest flu volume I had seen in my career,” she said.
And in order to have another easy flu season, people should continue to don a face mask when in public, practice proper social distancing and frequently wash their hands, McGraw and Khole said.
“We know hand-washing, covering your coughs and not working when you’re sick is so crucial to prevent the spread of any virus,” McGraw said.
Getting vaccinated against the flu and COVID-19 is also crucial, the doctors said.
It can take up to two weeks for the flu vaccine to work, so the CDC recommends people be inoculated now to prevent infection.
The influenza vaccine — which is available at pharmacies and doctor’s offices — changes slightly each year to keep up with flu strains, as they are constantly evolving. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is recommending one of two different injectable vaccines or the nasal vaccination this year and says anyone 6 months or older, with rare exceptions, should get vaccinated.
If someone is already vaccinated against COVID-19, it’s safe for them to get the flu shot, according to Khole. And if you’re not yet vaccinated against the novel coronavirus, Khole said you can receive both inoculations at once, though probably in different arms.
“Now more than ever, we need to believe in science and data supporting all these vaccines,” he said. “... Please get vaccinated — it is the right thing to do for yourself, your friends, your family and the community at large.”