September 30, 2022 by KiKi Bochi
Baptist Health Experts Offer Their Thoughts on Upcoming Flu Season
With the start of flu season just round the corner (did last year’s flu season ever really end?) and COVID continuing to circulate here in the U.S. and around the globe, doctors at Baptist Health are urging patients to get their vaccines soon. The flu vaccine is available now at all Baptist Health Urgent Care and Urgent Care Express locations, which are open seven days a week from 9 a.m. until 9 p.m.
To mark National Get Ready For Flu Day (Sept. 21), Resource editors spoke with Ladan Pourmasiha, D.O., a family medicine physician with Baptist Health and medical director for the health system’s Urgent Care centers in Broward County, and Corey Frederick, PharmD, an ambulatory care infectious diseases clinical coordinator with Baptist Health. They offered their thoughts on the upcoming flu season and why getting the flu vaccine is a good idea – especially for people aged 65 and older and certain other high-risk groups.
Resource: Dr. Pourmasiha, when is the start of flu season here in South Florida, typically?
Dr. Pourmasiha: Flu season varies from year to year in terms of when it peaks, especially here in Florida, where we don’t have as many dramatic seasonal changes in our weather. We’ve seen little activity over the last four to five weeks. Typically, flu season in Florida runs from November to April but it often peaks in January and February.
Resource: It seems like last year’s flu season never really ended – why is that?
Dr. Pourmasiha: The past flu season lasted longer than expected, perhaps because of the timing of last year’s COVID-Omicron spike and a decreased number of individuals getting vaccinated against the flu. Also, because of social distancing and masking during the pandemic, flu cases were essentially non-existent over the past two years. This prohibited us from getting that natural immunity we typically expect, so this last flu season lingered on longer than usual. There have been spikes throughout the summer but it seems to be tapering off now – just in time for the next one.
Resource: Dr. Anthony Fauci says that the experience of bellwether countries such as Australia and New Zealand portends an early start for our flu season and that it could be a bad one. What are your thoughts?
Dr. Pourmasiha: I believe he may be correct. We are now dealing with multiple flu viruses that are extremely infectious. So, it is possible to have a superimposed virus during this upcoming season. But, as Dr. Frederick will tell you, the flu vaccine now being distributed in the U.S. has proven effective against the dominant flu strain affecting those countries.The most important thing you can do is to make sure you are fully vaccinated against both COVID and flu, to decrease your risks of complications if you do get sick.
Resource: Dr. Frederick, are there any risks or side effects for people who get the flu vaccine?
Dr. Frederick: There is a small possibility that the flu vaccine could be associated with Guillain-Barré syndrome – generally no more than one or two cases per million people vaccinated. This is much lower than the risk of getting severe complications from flu, which can be easily prevented with the flu vaccine. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) cautions that “some vaccines are not recommended in some situations and for people of certain ages or with certain health conditions, and some people should not receive influenza vaccines at all (though this is uncommon).” The CDC adds that “flu vaccine side effects are generally mild and go away on their own within a few days. Some side effects that may occur from a flu shot include soreness, redness, and/or swelling where the shot was given, headache (low grade), fever, nausea, muscle aches, and fatigue.”
Resource: When do you recommend people get their flu vaccine?
Dr. Frederick: With the flu vaccine, it’s best to be vaccinated before the flu begins spreading in your community, so we recommend that everyone be vaccinated by the end of October. However, adults and especially older adults want to be careful not to get their flu vaccine too early, like in July or August, because the protection it offers may decrease over time and not be as effective when flu season really ramps up this winter.
Resource: Who is most at risk for serious illness or death from the flu, and why?
Dr. Pourmasiha: Typically speaking, regardless of what virus we are discussing, those that are most at risk are individuals who are: age 65 and above; living in nursing home facilities; immunocompromised; pregnant; have comorbidities such as diabetes or other chronic illness; or who have children aged 5 and under (and especially aged 2 and younger).
Resource: For someone 65 or older, what are the risks of not getting the flu vaccine?
Dr. Pourmasiha: The flu is more dangerous for older adults for a few reasons. One reason is that the immune system, which helps your body fight infections, weakens as you age. For example, because your body is busy fighting off the flu, you might pick up a secondary infection such as pneumonia or a sinus infection or an ear infection. A second reason is that older adults are also more likely to have other health conditions like diabetes that increase their risk for complications from flu. So, it’s always in the best interest of our older population to receive the flu vaccine to decrease the risk of serious complications.
Resource: Other than older adults, is there anyone else who should get the flu vaccine?
Dr. Frederick: This season, the CDC recommends “annual influenza vaccination for everyone 6 months and older with any licensed, age-appropriate influenza vaccine (IIV4, RIV4, or LAIV4) with no preference expressed for any one vaccine over another.” Certain populations are more at risk for developing severe complications from flu. Aside from older adults, we recommend that pregnant women and young children get the flu vaccine. According to the CDC, “Vaccinating pregnant women helps protect them from flu illness and hospitalization and also has been show to help protect the baby from flu infection for several months after birth, before the baby can be vaccinated.” Also, the CDC points to a 2017 study which showed that the flu vaccine can be lifesaving in children.
Resource: Given the symptom overlap between flu and COVID-19, can you remind readers how they can tell one from the other?
Dr. Pourmasiha: One of the key things we need to understand is that every person is different and their reactions to these viruses may also vary. Both COVID-19 and flu can have varying degrees of symptoms, ranging from no symptoms at all (asymptomatic) to severe symptoms. Common symptoms that COVID-19 and flu share include fever; cough; shortness of breath; fatigue; sore throat; runny nose; muscle pain or body aches; headache; vomiting; and diarrhea. Changes in or a loss of taste or smell have been noted with COVID-19, but not all patients experience this.
Resource: “Flurona” made the news last year – is it something we need to worry about this year?
Dr. Pourmasiha: What we’ve seen recently in our Urgent Care centers is a decline in the number of flu cases and an increase in patients presenting with milder symptoms of COVID, ranging from runny nose, sore throat and upper respiratory issues. But, yes, we will start to see cases of dual infections as we get into the winter months.
Resource: If someone wants to get vaccinated against both flu and COVID this fall, can they get them both at the same time or should they be staggered?
Dr. Pourmasiha: Yes, they can get them both at the same time. Initially the CDC had recommended that people wait 14 days after getting the COVID vaccine to have any other vaccine administered. However, after much research, they have found that it is safe to co-administer both the flu and COVID vaccine at the same time. Experience with other vaccines has shown that the way our bodies develop protection, known as an immune response, and the possible side effects after getting vaccinated are generally the same when given alone or with other vaccines.
Resource: Are flu and COVID vaccines available through Baptist Health?
Dr. Pourmasiha: Baptist Health Urgent Care and Urgent Care Express do offer the flu vaccine to children 9 years and older, adults and elderly patients. Baptist Health currently does not offer the Covid-19 vaccine to the community.
Resource: Is there anything else you feel readers should know about the flu vaccine?
Dr. Pourmasiha: As medical professionals and experts, we have always previously advised patients to get the flu vaccine. Now more than ever, given that the flu vaccine and COVID vaccines are readily available, we ask people to get both. This will not only help reduce their risk of complications from co-infections, it will also decrease the spread of these viruses in the community and the burden they place on the health care system, which was overwhelmed by the pandemic.
Resource: When should someone seek treatment at Baptist Health Urgent Care or Urgent Care Express for flu or COVID?
Dr. Pourmasiha: This is a tricky question and there is no right or wrong answer. As physicians, we generally want to educate our patients and their families about allowing the body to help eliminate an illness, and not rushing in immediately if their child appears sick. But given the recent spikes in flu and the continuation of the COVID pandemic, things change a bit. For optimal results, we typically like to evaluate and start treating our flu patients within the first 48 hours of the onset of symptoms. So, we recommend seeking treatment as soon as your symptoms start – especially if you have high fever, body aches and headache. That way, if it is flu, we wouldn’t miss that window period for treatment. And if it’s COVID or something else, we can treat it quickly and appropriately.