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Doctors urge flu shots, following COVID guidelines as flu season approaches

In a normal flu season, tens of thousands of Americans die from the disease. Doctors aren’t sure whether this upcoming season, in the midst of a pandemic, will be better or worse. One thing they are sure about, though, is that people should get their shot and continue to follow health guidelines. 

Dr. Danny Branstetter, the medical director of infectious diseases for Wellstar Health Systems, said flu season won’t probably begin until November, and will continue until March of next year. 

“The prevention methods that we’ve been telling people about preventing COVID transmission are essential for preventing influenza,” Branstetter said.

Could this year’s flu shot have the added benefit of protecting you against COVID? The jury’s still out on that, Branstetter said, but it certainly won’t hurt.

Just about everyone should get a flu shot, Branstetter said. As far as timing goes, he said people should get it before the end of October, preferably even earlier, as it takes two weeks for antibodies to develop.

Branstetter pointed out that the recent flu season in Australia was a good example of the effectiveness of these measures. Australia typically sees about 61,000 cases of flu during August. This year, due to interventions taken to avoid COVID transmission, that number was 160, Branstetter said. 

Australia, however, has had just 26,861 cases of COVID-19, a fraction of the 6.7 million cases in the U.S. Adjusted for population, the U.S. has had 2,051 cases per 100,000 people, which is more than 18 times what Australia has had — 107 cases per 100,000 people.

Dr. Kenneth Horlander, a pulmonary, allergy and critical care physician with Emory Healthcare, works for Emory at LaGrange and at Wellstar West Georgia Medical Center. 

Horlander said he was already seeing some flu cases, including people who have been seriously sick. One person in LaGrange has already landed in the ICU for flu.

COVID, though, will probably be deadlier than the flu, Horlander thinks.

Cases of COVID-19 are down in Troup County. As of Friday, the county was averaging 7.4 cases per day. A month ago, that number was 16, and at the peak of late June, it was higher than 50.

“If we were to get another spike in COVID, that could be terrible to have also a spike in flu,” Horlander said. “We could be running into another situation of limited supply, limited beds, limited everything.”

Flu patients who have already had lung disease are likely to have a rougher time with the disease, Horlander said. Those who previously had COVID and contract the flu, then, are at increased risk.

On the other hand, Horlander echoed Branstetter’s message that those who follow health guidelines to avoid contracting COVID-19 are also less likely to contract the flu. Horlander reminded people to continue to wear a mask, stay six feet apart and wash their hands to prevent the spread of both diseases.

“The people who are staying home, if they do go out they’re very careful … they’re protecting themselves from the flu also,” Horlander said.

Symptoms of the flu and COVID-19 are very similar, Horlander said. All of the normal flu symptoms can be seen in COVID, but some of the more unusual COVID symptoms, such as loss of taste, are not typically seen with flu.

It’s possible that someone with symptoms has both flu and COVID.

“I would bet we will see cases. So, likely enough that I would bet that we will see people get both,” Horlander said.

At Wellstar, people with flu symptoms can receive one test that tests for 16 or 17 different respiratory viruses, including the flu and COVID, Branstetter said. This is the preferred test for Wellstar and will be used as long as supplies last.