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What COVID-19 could mean for flu season


Steps taken to safeguard against COVID-19 may lead to what some are calling a “twindemic,” referring to the flu season colliding with a pandemic.

Making matters worse, many families delayed childhood vaccinations out of concern over visiting health care facilities during the pandemic, which could result in potential outbreaks of measles, whooping cough and other vaccine-preventable diseases.

“The flu is deadly. It can cause very severe illness in the very young, older adults and the immune-compromised,” said Dr. Kelly Orringer, director of general pediatrics at Michigan Medicine C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital. “Every year we have hundreds of thousands of hospital admissions and tens of thousands of deaths [from the flu]. This year is a two-fer. We have the annual concern of flu season. Add to that rising rates of COVID-19, and it could put a strain on the health care system, on hospitals, doctor’s offices and ventilators. It could be much worse.”

The experts don’t yet know what’s going to happen with flu and COVID-19.

We’re waiting to see. Very unfortunately it’s likely both will be circulating at the same time,” Orringer said.

They may work together or one may outcompete the other, said University of Washington Medicine’s Dr. John Lynch, medical director of infection control and prevention at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle.

“It is unlikely that a flu vaccine will protect you from COVID-19, but certainly having flu and COVID-19 at the same time would be much worse than having one at a time,” Lynch said.

Experts also don’t know if being infected with one will make a person more susceptible to the other.

Only about half of Americans get the flu shot annually, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. If ever there were a year to get the flu shot, 2020 is it, said Ann Philbrick, an associate professor in the College of Pharmacy at University of Minnesota.

Being coinfected with the flu and COVID-19 would take a huge toll on a person, overwhelming their body, especially their respiratory and cardiovascular systems, she said.

Getting your flu shot this year is especially important because it lessens the strain on the health care system, opening up resources such as hospital beds for those diagnosed with COVID-19, Philbrick said.

“Unless a doctor or a nurse practitioner or a physician assistant tells you you should not get vaccinated, you should assume you’ve got to get vaccinated,” Lynch said.

Earlier in the pandemic, many parents opted to postpone well visits, delaying childhood vaccinationsthat often need to be given in a series to be effective, Philbrick said.

Now, families are coming back in to catch up, Orringer said. Pediatricians are contacting families who have fallen behind and prioritizing those appointments, she said.

“For herd immunity to work we rely on 90% to 95% of people being properly vaccinated. If it drops to 75% to 80% it does increase the risk of possible outbreaks,” Orringer said.

“We are already dancing along the line of not having enough kids vaccinated,” Philbrick said. “If the vaccination threshold is not reached we could be looking at vaccine-preventable outbreaks” of chicken pox, measles and whooping cough.

Philbrick and Orringer said doctor’s offices and pharmacies are open with safeguards in place including physical distancing, timed appointments, health screenings and personal protective equipment.

In addition to virtual care visits, which can help alleviate potential strain on overcrowded health care providers, the Department of Health and Human Services issued an emergency order in August allowing pharmacists in all 50 states to give childhood vaccinations, Philbrick said.

“This is promising. It offers an additional tool for parents to get children vaccinated. Pharmacies are slightly more accessible than doctor’s offices,” she said.

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