What to Expect this Flu Season
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What to Expect this Flu Season

While COVID-19 continues to grab the headlines, public health and infectious disease experts are also concerned about the flu. Much about how the flu and coronavirus will interact remains a mystery. Uncertainty has led many in the infectious disease community to advise even greater caution. As we begin the 2020 – 2021 flu season, this is what we know.

COVID and Flu: Similarities
The flu and coronavirus are both viruses. They both cause respiratory symptoms and take up to 2 weeks to recover. Both can cause serious illness, which can result in hospitalization or death. Fortunately, both the flu and COVID can be contained by a similar set of precautions, including masking, distancing, and handwashing. Early reports from the southern hemisphere, where the flu season is opposite ours, suggest that these precautions are working to prevent flu in addition to COVID.

COVID and Flu: Differences
The flu was first discovered in the early 1930s, and scientists released a vaccine for it to the general public in 1946. By 1947, scientists realized that the formula they used the previous year was no longer effective. That’s because the flu mutates much more quickly than the family of coronaviruses, which remain pretty much the same from year to year. COVID-19, a specific type of coronavirus, was discovered just last year, and scientists are still working on a vaccine to help prevent infection.

Because they are different viruses, it is possible to get both COVID and the flu at the same time. While we are not yet certain, scientists feel that fighting both illnesses at the same time may be quite difficult. Similarly, the differences in the viruses mean that the flu vaccine will not protect you from COVID-19. The flu vaccine will not make you more likely to get COVID either.

Flu Vaccination: What’s the same?
While we hope COVID precautions will help fight the spread of flu, the surprises we’ve endured throughout COVID so far urge action. More than ever, we need to do all we can to prevent the spread of the flu. So, just as in year’s past, every healthy person over the age of 6 months should get a flu vaccine as soon as possible.

Flu vaccine is readily available and is expected to remain so. For the 2020-2021 season, manufacturers have projected they will provide as many as 198 million doses of flu vaccine, which is more than the 175 million, a dose record set during the 2019 – 2020 flu season. Vaccines can be obtained through your doctor’s office, at a pharmacy, or at a flu clinic. Visit vaccinefinder.org for a pharmacy near you. Sign up for SVMC’s e-newsletter and follow SVMC in social media for upcoming flu clinics locally.    

Even those who live in communities where COVID is spreading are urged to still go out to get their flu vaccine, while taking all precautions, including masking, distancing, and handwashing.

Flu Vaccination: What’s different?
Flu clinics may look significantly different this year. They will likely be held in much larger venues or outside, in order to take advantage of ventilation and abide by social distancing guidelines.  Some are working to establish drive-up clinics. As always, people who are ill, with COVID or anything else, should not get the flu vaccine until after they are well.

Testing for COVID and Flu
If you come down with respiratory symptoms, your doctor may recommend you get tested for both the flu and COVID. Centers for Disease Control laboratories have even combined the test, so that every specimen is tested for both in one step.

We should expect that flu testing will be done in the same way COVID testing is done now. At SVMC, patients with symptoms and a referral from a physician drive up for their COVID test. Because your provider will not likely know which illness you have, you will be advised to quarantine until your results are known.

The take-home message is this: now more than ever, get your flu vaccine. Doing so could protect you from developing a duel infection, the seriousness of which is not yet known.

Donna Barron, RN, is the infectious disease preventionist at Southwestern Vermont Medical Center.



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