Flu Season During COVID-19: What You Need to Know Now

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September 29, 2020

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This post is available in: Spanish

The 2020 flu season is here and getting vaccinated is more important than ever because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Social-distancing guidelines to slow the spread of the coronavirus – including avoiding gatherings, wearing masks and proper hygiene – can also protect you from getting the flu. But only influenza, or the flu, has the critical advantage of a vaccine that can protect you from infection, or diminish the risk of getting severely ill.

“Every fall, health experts urge us to get vaccinated for the flu,”  Jonathan Fialkow, M.D., deputy medical director, chief of cardiology and a certified lipid specialist at Miami Cardiac & Vascular Institute and chief population health officer for Baptist Health South Florida. “This year, in the midst of the COVID 19 pandemic, this message needs to be shouted from the rooftops.”

Dr. Fialkow moderated a Resource Live on Facebook with a panel of experts who discussed critical concerns about the Flu and COVID-19.  The Resource Live panel of experts: Maria Ordonez, M.D., primary care physician with Baptist Health; Ladan Pourmasiha, M.D., medical director, Baptist Health Urgent Care; and Aileen Marty, M.D., professor of Infectious Disease at the Herbert Wertheim College of Medicine at Florida International University.

Both the flu and COVID-19 can weaken your immune system, making a person more susceptible to contracting the other virus.

“So, when you have a dual infection, your entire clinical picture is much worse than if you have one or the other,” explains Dr. Marty. “So, you definitely want to control whichever one you can control …”

You can get free flu shots at all Baptist Health Urgent Care and Urgent Care Express locations in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties, or by appointment at Baptist Health primary care offices.

“We’ve iterated and reiterated … with the social distancing, with the proper precautions, people are not getting sick by coming to urgent cares, emergency rooms and doctor’s offices,” said Dr. Fialkow. “In fact, the risk in the community is higher. So, if you’re sick, get yourself taken care of.”

Here are some of the questions and answers from the Resource Live discussion:

Dr. Fialkow: So, if an individual is at home with symptoms or a family member has symptoms, is there a way for them to make an appointment, or do they have to just go to the urgent care and wait?

Dr. Pourmasiha:
We’ve been trying very, very hard to social distance, and keep the waiting rooms as empty as possible. A lot of times, we even have people wait inside their car to keep them safe, to keep other patients safe. And … they can actually get online and use Save My Spot. You schedule a time, a date, and you’re able to come in, be seen and hopefully — quickly in and out.”

Dr. Fialkow: If your suspicion is that it’s influenza, what would you do? If you’re suspicious that it’s COVID-19, what would you do? Do you handle them differently?

Dr. Pourmasiha:
“Now as far as telling the difference between the two or the similarities, unfortunately they’re both respiratory viruses, so they are kind of present very similarly. So, this is where we need to do some testing and testing may be required … all of our urgent cares are able to do both the influenza testing as well as the COVID-19 testing.

“And, generally, what we’re doing is three major tests in the urgent cares. One of the tests is the PCR test that we are doing, and this is pretty much the gold standard that the CDC is recommending. And now we’re getting about a three-day turnaround time. And what that’s basically doing is that it’s looking for the genetic material of the coronavirus. And in this particular case, some of the patients may not even be symptomatic and we’re testing them with the PCR.

“In the other cases that we’re actually seeing … we’re doing the rapid test, and this is our antigen test. And this one particularly looks at proteins on the virus’ surface … They come in, they’re like: I want to know right now. Well, we have 15 minutes for that test to come back and that’s great for the patient.

“And then the third test that we do offer is that IgG antibody test. This patient comes in and they either want to get on a flight (or) they think that at some point they had COVID, or they were exposed to someone. But they’re not currently having any symptoms. So, we test them for that antibody as well.”

Dr. Fialkow: Let’s talk about why influenza remains a major concern and why we want to message our viewers to take it seriously and get the vaccine.

Dr. Marty:
“Remember, COVID-19 is a virus …  that will lower your immune defenses. So, when you have a dual infection, your entire clinical picture is much worse than if you have one or the other. So, you definitely want to control for whichever one you can control or both, if you could. And, right now, we can control for influenza with the influenza vaccine. You definitely want to get that out of the picture so you don’t have a dual infection. And also, so you don’t have that confusion factor. So that’s another really important reason why we want to diminish the risk of influenza.”

Dr. Fialkow: Flu vaccines are available from your primary care doctor who will be able to tell you how and when to get it, right?

Dr. Ordonez:
“Yes … And we have them available …  We recommend it, but (some patients say) ‘I don’t get the flu shot because then I get some symptoms and I’m going to get sick.’ You do have this small reaction, like to every other vaccine, you can get some soreness, right? So maybe a little bit of fatigue, right. But that’s less than what you would get with the flu. They usually go away in a couple of days.

“And then the other one is, even if you get the flu, the vaccine can prevent from having a lower severity of illness. So even if you do get it, it does give you protection to nuggets such as severity of disease. Studies show even if you are admitted to the hospital, you have less of a hospital stay, less of ICU stay. So still, even if you get sick from the flu, you still have more protection, better protection, than if you didn’t get the flu shot.”

Dr. Marty:
“(Dr. Ordonez) made such an excellent point. She reminded me of another important point about influenza vaccines. And that’s study after study showing that because you don’t get the flu, you don’t have a whole bunch of different cytokines that put you at risk for stroke and heart disease. So, it’s actually protective against cardiovascular disease to take the flu vaccine.”

Dr. Fialkow: What have you seen as the impact on our healthcare providers?

Dr. Ordonez:
“For us, as we learn, we give patients guidance and education. What I see a lot is people … trying to wait a long time before they’re seen (by a doctor) or before they get medical care because they’re scared. They’re scared of getting (COVID-19). So, we’re trying to be as safe as possible — in our facilities; in the hospitals.

“But there were a lot of people waiting, with maybe chest pain or waiting with other concerns. And so that also overwhelms the healthcare system, because then you come in with more complicated conditions — abdominal pain or something else.

“If it’s something that needs to get looked at, we urge patients … to talk to one of us. You can do initially a telehealth visit, or get to an urgent care or call your primary care provider … or talk to us or come in. If you need to go to the ER, go. They’re taking all the precautions. Do not wait till the end when you can have something more complicated.”

Protect yourself and your loved ones. Schedule your #flushot today at BaptistHealth.net/Flu.

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