With flu season fast approaching amid the COVID-19 pandemic, health officials say getting vaccinated for the flu this year is more important than ever.
Dr. Marika Henegan, medical director of Cheshire Medical Center’s Walk-In Care clinic in Keene, said symptoms of both viral diseases significantly overlap, which could lead to new challenges this fall for health-care providers.
“It will be tricky to separate what is the flu and what is COVID-19,” she said in an email.
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, Henegan said.
She added that health-care facilities are working on ways to safely care for patients who could have either the flu or COVID-19 while simultaneously preventing both diseases from spreading.
Dr. Mark Levine, Vermont’s health commissioner, similarly described the importance of keeping flu rates as low as possible to avoid a “twindemic” of both diseases.
“Our primary focus will be to increase the rate of vaccination, especially among children and teens,” Levine said in a prepared statement Friday from the Vermont Department of Health.
The agency noted that just under 43 percent of kids 5 to 12 in Vermont got a flu vaccine last year, along with just under 36 percent of 13- to 17-year-olds.
“We can and must do better,” Levine said.
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.
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.
If you’re showing mild flu symptoms, Henegan said, you can likely just stay home and focus on hydration and rest.
For more severe symptoms, like shortness of breath or high fever, she said you should call your primary-care provider or local walk-in clinic for guidance. In-person visits are recommended only when necessary, she said.
Those who have the flu will be contagious for a shorter period of time than if they had contracted COVID-19, according to Dr. Aalok Khole, infectious-disease physician at Cheshire Medical Center.
It’s also possible to have the flu and COVID-19 at the same time, Khole said, and it’s unknown if those who have influenza are more susceptible to contracting COVID-19.
Far more fatalities and complications have stemmed from COVID-19 to date than influenza causes annually, Henegan added.
In the 2019-20 flu season, 33 New Hampshire adults are known to have died from influenza, according to the N.H. Department of Health and Human Services. Nationally, between 24,000 and 62,000 people died from the flu during that same season, the CDC says.
As of Friday, New Hampshire’s health department had recorded 432 COVID-19-related deaths among Granite Staters. At least 167,558 people have died nationwide, according to the CDC.
Another typical illness during the fall is the common cold, which is also a respiratory infection. The onset of cold symptoms is much more gradual than the flu, with a mild cough, sore muscles and tiredness. A cold also typically includes a stuffy and runny nose, while the flu rarely does.
To reduce the spread of these diseases, people should continue to don a face mask when in public, practice proper social distancing and frequently wash their hands, according to health officials.
And to avoid the flu, Henegan said, getting vaccinated is key.
The vaccine 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 three different injectable vaccines or the nasal vaccination this year and says anyone 6 months or older, with rare exceptions, should get vaccinated.
During the 2018-19 flu season, the latest for which data are available from the CDC, 52 percent of New Hampshire residents received the flu vaccine, 2.8 percent higher than the national average.
It can take up to two weeks for the flu vaccine to work, so the CDC recommends people be inoculated now to prevent infection.
“Our hope is that with ongoing efforts and measures in place we can keep our community safe from the potentially devastating effects of an influenza or COVID-19 outbreak,” Henegan said.