How Will Flu Be Impacted by COVID-19?

Bhagyashree Shastri, MD, Infectious Disease and Internal Medicine physician of Internal Medicine Associates of Aiken, answers your questions about the upcoming flu season and how it will be impacted by COVID-19.

Q: Is this flu season any different?

This flu season collides with the COVID-19 pandemic. It is likely that flu viruses and the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 will both be spreading this fall/winter. While there is currently no vaccine for the latter, this year it becomes all the more important to receive the flu vaccine to protect you and your loved ones.

Q: Do we need to get a flu vaccine earlier this year?

The CDC recommends getting vaccinated in September/October to ensure optimum protection against flu infection later in the flu season. However, as long as flu viruses are circulating, vaccination should continue, even in January or later.

Q: Who should get the flu vaccine?

Everyone 6 months of age and older should get a flu vaccine, every season. If you received the flu shot in January this year, you still need the 2020-2021 flu vaccine, as this provides you protection against the viruses that are expected to be circulating this flu season. Vaccination is particularly important for people who are at increased risk of complications from the flu.

Q: Am I a high-risk person?

Children younger than 2 years, adults 65 years and older, pregnant women, and individuals with asthma, chronic lung disease (such as COPD), heart disease (congestive heart failure, coronary artery disease), diabetes mellitus, and chronic kidney and liver diseases are at an increased risk of Influenza and its severe complications. Those with reduced immunity due to cancer, chemotherapy, chronic steroids or medications that suppress the immune system are at increased risk. People with HIV are also at increased risk of influenza related complications.

Q: What flu vaccines are recommended this season?

For the 2020-2021 flu season, providers may choose to administer any licensed, age-appropriate flu vaccine (IIV, RIV4, or LAIV4) with no preference for any one vaccine over another. These include Afluria Quadrivalent®, Fluarix Quadrivalent®, FluLaval Quadrivalent®, Fluzone Quadrivalent® and FluMist®. This includes the high-dose flu shot for those 65 years of age or older.

Q: How effective is the flu vaccine?

Getting the flu shot reduces the chance of having a severe infection, having further complications requiring hospital admission and ICU stay, and spreading the flu virus to other people. The flu shot also provides protection against four circulating influenza viruses.

Q: What is the difference between flu and COVID-19?

COVID-19 is caused by infection with a new coronavirus (called SARS-CoV-2) and flu is caused by infection with influenza viruses. Both influenza and COVID-19 are contagious respiratory viruses that can spread through droplets, or surfaces with viruses on them. Both may have identical symptoms with cough, fever, malaise and diarrhea. Despite the similarities in their symptoms, the test and treatment for both vary. If you start experiencing any of the above symptoms, isolate yourself and contact your healthcare provider.

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

Yes, it is possible to have the flu, COVID-19 and other respiratory viruses, like common cold virus (rhinovirus), at the same time. We have yet to learn how common that is, since this is the first flu season in a COVID-19 pandemic.

Q: If I start experiencing symptoms, is there a test to detect flu and COVID-19?

Yes, tests are available to diagnose both flu and COVID-19. If you start experiencing any symptoms, contact your healthcare provider. It is recommended to call your provider’s office prior to visiting so your provider can plan your visit and offer you care in a safe manner without putting you or others at risk. Some providers are offering virtual visits. Check with your healthcare provider’s office and have a plan in place.

Q: Will a flu vaccine protect me against COVID-19?

Getting a flu vaccine will not protect against COVID-19. It will however reduce the risk of flu related illness, hospitalization and death. There is a good chance it will keep you out of waiting rooms in urgent care, a doctor’s office and emergency department.

Q: Is the treatment for flu and COVID-19 similar?

No, the treatments for both differ. FDA approved anti-virals like oseltamivir and baloxavir marboxil, if taken within 72 hours of symptom onset, will reduce the severity of symptoms of influenza. There are currently no FDA-approved drugs to prevent or treat COVID-19.

Q: What can I do to keep my loved ones safe?

Apart from the flu shot, good health habits, if practiced diligently, will go a long way in keeping these respiratory viruses away. These include washing hands frequently with soap and water for 20 seconds, covering your nose and mouth when coughing or sneezing, using face coverings as recommended by your local authorities, and avoiding touching your face or mask. Identify the high-touch surfaces at home, work or school and clean and disinfect them frequently. Avoid large crowds/gatherings and continue to practice physical distancing measures.

Q: This has been a stressful year and I am very anxious about the flu season. How can I reduce my stress?

Good health habits and flu vaccination remain our best line of defense against COVID-19 and influenza. It is equally important to develop effective ways to combat stress. Stress reduces immunity and further puts you at risk of infections. Follow a healthy diet, exercise and check on your loved ones regularly.