At the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, I evaluated a woman who was complaining of body aches, headaches and a fever. Given her quick onset of symptoms, I was absolutely convinced she had the flu. At that time, we thought this level of COVID-19 symptoms developed gradually over a week or so. This patient only had these complaints for a couple of days.
I was wrong. She had COVID-19 and turned out to be one of the first people in Washington state and in the United States diagnosed with the coronavirus in February.
I learned that day and with our experience since that the coronavirus can look exactly like an influenza virus infection. That is why it’s more important than ever that you get your flu shot this fall.
When you go for your flu shot, be public about it. Let your family and friends know what you are doing. If you have kids, make sure they get their flu vaccine as well and also receive their regular vaccinations — my 11-year-old received her shots several weeks ago. For our elders, make sure you get your pneumonia shots. For those 50 and older, consider getting that shingles vaccine.
Having all your vaccinations in place, including the flu shot, will give health care providers an added advantage when someone comes into our clinics or hospitals complaining of symptoms. Get the vaccinations you need now and don’t delay. Clinics, hospitals and pharmacies have solid precautions in place to keep providing vaccinations safely, even in the setting of COVID-19.
Last year, only 47% of the U.S. population got a flu shot, according to the latest CDC numbers available. We simply must do better this year to avoid a “twindemic” of both COVID-19 and flu that could derail the ability of hospitals and clinics to provide care for the sickest of all our patients. In the 2019-2020 flu season — which begins Oct. 1 and goes through April 4 of each year — there were up to 740,000 hospitalizations in the U.S. due to the flu, according to the CDC.
If we can do anything to decrease these influenza numbers in the U.S., we’ll be able to provide more beds, more office visits, and more capacity in our emergency departments, our clinics and our hospitals going forward into the fall and winter for people with COVID-19, other infections and medical issues. By avoiding lots of flu cases, health care workers also won’t have to use up much needed personal protective equipment while waiting for COVID-19 tests to come back, when the person actually has flu.
A study by the American Academy of Family Physicians this year found that millennials were the least likely demographic to get the flu shot. This needs to change, especially this year. Those in their 20s and 30s not only need to protect themselves, but also to protect the older family members and other vulnerable populations they may come in contact with. It’s a matter of community and social responsibility.
There are some who point to the Southern Hemisphere, which had an almost nonexistent flu season. No one quite knows why, but I will note that this area of the world did a very good job of masking and social distancing. At the moment, I’m not ready to bet on a mild flu season this year for the U.S. Neither should you.
Please get the flu shot, continue to#MaskUpWashington and social distance.