In the Tri-County Health Care town hall on Sept. 1 and a phone interview with the Pioneer Journal on Sept. 4, chief medical officer Dr. Ben Hess answered questions about the upcoming flu season during the COVID-19 pandemic.
What are some of the differences and similarities between COVID-19 and the flu, based on what is known?
The flu is caused by influenza viruses and COVID-19 is caused by the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The top similarities between COVID-19 and the flu are initial symptoms, such as fever, muscles, runny nose and sore throat, and how the viruses are spread through droplets, according to Hess.
“Nobody, not people at home, not doctors, can just look at you and tell if you have COVID or influenza just based on your symptoms at first blush. We really have to do that testing to sort through it,” Hess said.
Hess noted two differences as available and effective treatments for the flu and the large number of deaths for COVID-19. When people are sick with the flu, there are various treatments but COVID-19 treatment options are few, as Hess said.
“A real key here is that COVID is more dangerous right now than the flu also,” Hess said. “You just have to look at the statistics. Every year influenza kills approximately 30,000 Americans. Already with less than a year, we have lost over 180,000 Americans from COVID so that is by far a way more dangerous, way more serious illness. And we aren’t even into the actual flu season yet which is probably when COVID activity will pick up and become worse.”
If you have concerns about your symptoms, both Tri-County and Lakewood offer free online screenings as well as web pages on COVID-19. The Minnesota Department of Health also has a COVID-19 hotline, call 651-201-3920 or 1-800-657-3903.
Fever or chills; cough; shortness of breath or difficulty breathing; fatigue; muscle or body aches; headache; new loss of taste or smell; sore throat; congestion or runny nose; nausea or vomiting; diarrhea.
— COVID-19 Symptoms, CDC
Why will COVID pick up during the flu season time of year?
Flu season typically runs from October to March with possible peaks between December to February in the United States, according to the CDC. There is not a known season length for the coronavirus.
“It’s mainly because the same things that would drive influenza to spread more rapidly in the community will also apply to COVID, where people are indoors, they’re less able to socially distance, they’re not able to be outside as much and isolate as much. So we just expect that their spread is similar so we expect their prevalence will be similar. But I don’t know that for sure,” Hess said.
Do you have concerns as the flu season is approaching?
The unknowns of COVID-19 in the fall and winter and the possible prevalence of COVID-19 and the flu at the same time may impact demand in the hospitals.
“Just that now we’ll be dealing with two potentially serious infections, and I think the demands will be higher on the clinics also,” Hess said. “We’re going to have, I think, more students and people working in the school needing to be seen quickly and trying to get answers about why they’re ill or what their symptoms are.”
Could the flu lead to a harsher case of COVID-19?
With COVID-19 and the flu there isn’t enough information to say how the two could impact each other, though commonly having co-infections from two different viruses at the same time is "pretty unusual," according to Hess. The CDC said it is possible for people to have both COVID-19 and the flu, and that studies are being completed to learn how common this is.
“That one I don’t know if I have an answer on, we really haven’t had a lot of experience yet with the co-mingling of the flu season and COVID,” Hess said. “Certainly getting ill with one weakens you for a little awhile and it may take some time to recover, and you could become ill with the other easier or it could be a more severe illness but I guess we just don’t really have enough experience yet with the two overlapping diseases to really know a lot about that yet.”
When community members or maybe parents are trying to determine symptoms or whether to stay home, do you have any tips?
While it is difficult to determine the illnesses of COVID-19 or the flu based on symptoms alone, Hess said it is “key” to pay attention to new symptoms.
“If people have new symptoms they really need to take them seriously and not brush them off as just allergies or something minor because I think especially for kids they often aren’t very ill and yet they could still have COVID and so any new symptoms for them should probably be looked at carefully,” Hess said.
The list of symptoms for COVID-19 also includes common symptoms that people experience daily from other conditions, which again people should be aware of but not overly concerned about since the symptoms are regular. While more is being learned about COVID-19 "long-haulers," who experience symptoms for months, Hess said “if you’ve had it (symptoms) for more than two weeks, it’s probably not COVID.”
How can people prepare for the flu season? Will this flu season be different this year?
Hess said the flu vaccine is a “critical component” this year.
“If there was ever a year to get your flu vaccine this is the year to get it,” Hess said.
He also encourages following the health measures related to COVID-19 for both viruses, including good hand hygiene, social distancing, wearing a mask and covering coughs and sneezes, which could positively impact the number of people who die yearly from the flu and the number of people who are dying from COVID-19.
While the area flu season and flu clinics typically start in October, the current spread of COVID-19 along with the initial symptom similarities between the viruses mean people should possibly get the vaccine earlier, according to Hess.
“In this year with COVID active in the community right from the get go, I think you want to get that (flu vaccine) now because it will make it a lot easier for your doctors to sort through what kind of an illness you might have if you show up with fevers, muscle aches and a runny nose and a sore throat,” Hess said. “If you’ve already had the flu vaccine that’s going to be way lower on my list, and my suspicion, my concern for COVID is going to be way higher.”
Where can I get the flu vaccine?
Area pharmacies and clinics are currently or planning times for offering the vaccine. Most health insurances cover the cost of a flu vaccine.
“We’re anticipating a larger demand this year,” Hess said.
Seip Drug New York Mills, Bertha, Henning: Available currently with more doses coming, stop by the store during business hours or call ahead to make sure someone is available. Non-insurance cost is $35.
Thrifty White Wadena: Available currently during business hours, no appointment required. Bring your insurance card.
Tri-County Health Care: After-hours or weekend flu clinics will likely start near the end of September. If you already have an appointment, you can get the flu vaccine then.
Walmart Pharmacy Wadena: Available currently anytime during business hours and during flu events every Tuesday from 7-11 a.m. and Thursday from 2-6 p.m. Non-insurance cost will depend.
To learn more about the differences and similarities between COVID-19 and influenza, visit www.cdc.gov/flu/symptoms/flu-vs-covid19.htm.