If you look back on health news headlines from this time last year, two things might stand out: COVID-19 cases were surging, and flu cases were — remarkably — not. While things may be improving a bit when it comes to COVID-19 as more people receive a COVID vaccine, we unfortunately cannot say the same about the flu. In San Diego, flu cases are fast outpacing last season’s numbers.
According to the County of San Diego Health and Human Services Agency (HHSA), 423 influenza (flu) cases were reported in the county as of the end of November. At the same time last year, only 30 flu cases had been reported. What’s more, the HHSA reports flu vaccinations are lagging this year, which could lead to more people getting sick.
Combine the increasing number of flu cases with COVID-19 cases in the region, and we might be heading into a very challenging season of increased illness and overtaxed hospitals.
“Getting vaccinated for both flu and COVID-19 is especially important during the COVID-19 pandemic,” says Leslie Thompson, manager of Sharp HealthCare Employee Occupational Health. “COVID has been a significant drain on our health care resources and staffing. Adding an additional widespread respiratory illness such as flu would further impact our already strained health care system.”
Thompson says that vaccinating a majority of San Diego residents can lead to a reduction in flu cases and their severity, as well as help local hospitals ensure that their emergency departments and ICUs are not overwhelmed. “This would allow us to not just handily care for our COVID-19 patients, but also other high-risk events, such as heart attacks and accidents,” she says.
Why you don’t want a dual — or misdiagnosed — infection
Thompson advises that having both infections at the same time or close together makes it more difficult for your system to effectively respond. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), while the flu and COVID-19 are caused by different viruses, there are several similarities between the two. They both affect the respiratory system, are contagious, and can cause mild to severe illness. Having both at the same time could lead to serious illness.
What’s more, the two illnesses share common symptoms — fever, dry cough, body aches, chills and fatigue — which could lead to an inaccurate diagnosis.
If a flu infection is mistaken for COVID-19, you may find yourself facing unnecessary, lengthy quarantine or not receiving appropriate flu treatment, such as antiviral medication. If COVID-19 is mistaken for the flu, you may not recognize the importance of appropriately isolating yourself to avoid infection spread or seek care when necessary. Therefore, testing for each illness is crucial.
The best protection is vaccination
The best way to prevent flu infection and avoid complications of what many are calling a COVID-19 and flu “twindemic” is to receive both a COVID-19 vaccine and flu shot. Although the strains causing this season’s flu may not exactly match those in the flu vaccine, the protection the vaccine provides is effective. If you are exposed to a strain in the vaccine you receive, the infection will be less severe or even negligible.
In fact, the CDC reports that the flu vaccine has been shown to reduce the risk of having to go to the doctor with the flu by 40% to 60%. Flu vaccination among adults was also associated with a 26% lower risk of intensive care unit admission and a 31% lower risk of death from flu, compared to people who were unvaccinated.
All people age 6 months and older are encouraged to receive a flu vaccine every year. According to the CDC, the flu vaccine is especially important for people at higher risk of having serious complications from the virus, including:
- People with chronic health conditions, such as asthma, diabetes and lung disease
- Pregnant people
- People age 65 and older
- People who live in nursing homes or other long-term care facilities
Know when to get vaccinated
According to Thompson, early analysis of this year’s flu season shows it is following the trends of seasons that had a high number of flu cases. “And the cases seem to be occurring earlier in the year,” she says, “which means people should not wait to get vaccinated.”
The time to get the flu vaccine is now, Thompson says. And you can even receive a flu vaccine and COVID-19 vaccine at the same time, though experts recommend receiving the shots in different arms.
Talk to your doctor if you have questions about the flu vaccine or are not feeling well. If you have a moderate-to-severe illness with or without a fever, the CDC recommends you wait until you recover to receive the flu vaccine. However, you may be able to be vaccinated if your illness is mild and without a fever.