With flu season on the way during an ongoing pandemic, Denton County Public Health Director Matt Richardson says it’s never been more important to get a flu vaccination.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, influenza activity begins to increase in October but peaks between December and February. The CDC and Denton County’s health authority are urging caution because influenza and the virus that causes COVID-19 may both spread over the coming months.
“It’s never been more important than it is this year … to get a flu vaccine,” Richardson said. “And when you’re ill, go to your doctor, be tested [for the flu and COVID-19] and really understand the difference. The risk factors are different, but we’re encouraging everyone to get the flu vaccine quickly so we can minimize spread of the flu when we’re concerned about this parallel global infection of COVID-19. We want to minimize the effects of influenza while we drive this pandemic response.”
Unlike with the flu, there’s not yet a vaccine or antiviral medication for COVID-19. If you get influenza, you can get treated almost immediately.
“That’s important — we’ve got a vaccine and a viral medication,” Richardson said.
Dozens of vaccines for COVID-19 are in clinical trial stages, according to the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.
On Friday, Pfizer Inc. representatives said it may file for emergency use authorization of the vaccine it’s creating with BioNTech through the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Chairman and CEO Albert Bourla wrote in an open letter that filing would depend on a few factors, including data on the vaccine’s effectiveness, which may occur by the third week of November. The FDA requires companies creating vaccines to provide two months of safety data on half of the trial participants.
Two vaccine trials have halted their late-stage trials citing “potentially unexplained” and “unexplained” illnesses. AstraZeneca halted its trial in September, and Johnson & Johnson pushed pause on trials Monday. Both companies said they would investigate whether study participants’ illnesses were related to their vaccines.
Influenza and COVID-19 are not the same illness, but they do have overlapping symptoms, such as headaches, body aches and a cough.
“And COVID-19, there’s some nuances,” Richardson said. “The loss of sense of taste or smell is unique to COVID-19, but the majority of symptoms [between the two] can be similar.”
Getting tests for both in the coming months can be very helpful as both illnesses will spread, although COVID-19 is more infectious and more easily transmitted. Richardson said it’s important to stay home whenever you feel sick, but it’s especially important to quarantine if you test positive for COVID-19.
“For our vulnerable populations, for our seniors, the elderly, the immunocompromised, knowing the difference between COVID-19 and the flu is important if caught early enough that treatment can be very effective,” Richardson said. “For vulnerable populations, that difference can be measurable, and it can be impactful. … If you have the flu, and it’s caught in time, [your doctor can] prescribe you antiviral medication.”
For some, knowing whether you have the flu or COVID-19 can be a matter of life and death. By Friday morning, Johns Hopkins confirmed 217,798 Americans have died due to COVID-19. Confirmed cases were at 7,985,356 Friday morning.
The CDC estimated about 38 million people were sick with the flu in the United States during the 2019-20 season, in which activity began to decline in March. About 400,000 people were hospitalized for the flu, and 22,000 people died.
“When you boil all of this down to the most important element, COVID-19 symptoms can be flu symptoms,” Richardson said. “People need to be tested for the flu so they can be treated, and tested, for COVID.”
On Thursday, Richardson said he didn’t know how many flu vaccines are available in the community or how many people have been vaccinated. While Denton County Public Health will be reporting on influenza, he said positive flu results are reported to the department voluntarily, not by law.
“The test results we get are anecdotally and [from] sites,” he said. “We ask hospitals, clinics to report flu tests by week to monitor activity. We’ve begun collecting that information. We’re going to begin flu reporting soon. Again, it’s a little different because it’s not going to be as comprehensive.”