Flu season meets COVID-19
Herbert Morrow, D.O., isn’t sure what will happen if Erie County suffers a severe flu season in the middle of a COVID-19 pandemic.
The UPMC Hamot family physician expects he will see more patients with respiratory illnesses, especially if people don’t get their flu shots.
“One concern is that is could be difficult to tell which illness a patient has, just based on their symptoms,” said Morrow, a physician at Your Hometown Health Partners in Millcreek Township. “We have learned a lot about COVID-19 and one of the things we have learned is that it can present differently in different people. Sometimes those include flu symptoms.”
COVID-19 reached Erie County in March, at the end of a record flu season that infected at least 4,400
After a record 2019-2020 flu season that infected at least 4,400 Erie County residents and filled Erie-area hospitals with patients, doctors and other health-care professionals are worried a similar flu season will overwhelm hospitals that are already filling with COVID-19 patients. [DAVID CRIGGER, BRISTOL HERALD COURIER VIA ASSOCIATED PRESS]
county residents and filled Erie hospitals with patients.
Doctors and other health-care professionals are worried a similar flu season will overwhelm hospitals that are already filling with COVID-19 patients. They also are concerned that people will be infected with both diseases at the same time.
“We don’t have much data on people coinfected with COVID-19 and influenza,” said Howard Nadworny, M.D., a Saint Vincent Hospital infectious diseases specialist and advisor to the Erie County Department of Health. “COVID happened right at the end of flu season and when it was due to hit in the Southern Hemisphere, many of those countries were in lockdown for COVID, so there weren’t many flu cases.”
But there is data on people getting infected with other viruses while battling COVID-19, so doctors think it can happen with flu, Nadworny said.
“We don’t know how bad it is getting both viruses,” Nadworny said. “But even if a co-infection doesn’t make people worse, having both viruses in the community will increase the number of people in our hospitals.”
Since COVID-19 and flu share many of the same symptoms, including fever and coughing, testing for the viruses is important.
A single swab test for COVID-19, flu and respiratory syncytial virus is expected to soon be available, Morrow said. Doctors now can test for both flu and RSV with one swab.
“We will likely decide on a patient-by-patient basis whether to test for one, two or all three of those illnesses,” Morrow said.
No flu cases have been reported in the county this fall, Erie County Department of Health Director Melissa Lyon said Tuesday. Flu season usually occurs between January and April, but it has arrived as early as October.
But 480 confirmed flu cases have been reported in Pennsylvania through Nov. 28, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Health. Forty of the state’s 67 counties have reported at least one flu case.
Twelve people have been hospitalized with flu and there has been one flurelated death in the state.
The best defense against getting co-infected with flu and COVID-19 is to get a flu shot, Lyon said. Though the LECOM Health Center for Health and Aging’s influenza vaccination campaign ended in early November, there are plenty of places to get a flu shot.
“You can go to your primary-care physician and many pharmacies are still giving flu shots,” Lyon said. She also recommended Federally Qualified Health Centers, which include Community Health Net and Wayne Primary Care.
Lyon also recommended getting the COVID-19 vaccine when it is available.
The first doses — which are expected to go to health-care workers, first responders and nursinghome residents — could be given by the end of December.
Until a COVID-19 vaccine is available to the general population sometime in 2021, the best defense is social distancing and face masks. Fortunately, these also reduce the spread of flu, Nadworny said.
“They are spread in roughly the same way, through small respiratory droplets that are inhaled,” Nadworny said. “Wearing a face mask and maintaining social distance will protect you from both of these illnesses.” Contact David Bruce at dbruce@timesnews. com. Follow him on Twitter @ETNBruce.