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How to Stay Safe Against COVID-19 and the Flu

By Jennifer Larson, contributor

Every year around this time, the healthcare community begins to prepare for the onset of flu season. Flu season typically begins in October (although cases are diagnosed earlier than that) before peaking between December and February. 

But this year, healthcare professionals are bracing for what could be a double whammy: the overlap of COVID-19 and the flu. 

According to computer modeling produced by University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, the United States could be looking at a death toll of more than 410,000 from COVID by the end of 2020. And while we don’t yet know what this flu season will bring, preliminary estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are putting flu deaths from the recent 2019-2020 season between 24,000 and 62,000

You may be fielding a lot of questions from your patients these days about the best ways to stay safe against both COVID and the flu.

Make a flu shot a “must”

If there was ever a year to encourage your patients to get a flu shot, this is the year. Experts typically recommend a seasonal flu shot to everyone over the age of six months.

“Physicians need to emphasize the importance of flu shots, not only to help prevent the spread of the flu, but also to keep immune systems strong during COVID-19,” says Michael Roizen, MD, chief wellness officer at the Cleveland Clinic.

That means you need to get a flu vaccine, too. The CDC, the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP), and the Healthcare Infection Control Practices Advisory Committee (HICPAC), all recommend seasonal flu vaccination for healthcare workers. The reason: healthcare professionals come into contact with patients and could be potentially exposed to infectious agents–or expose their patients to infectious agents, like the influenza virus.

Typically, between 77 and 81 percent of healthcare workers get vaccinated against the flu each year, per the CDC. Nurses and doctors tend to have the highest vaccination rates. 

Be ready to talk about the flu vaccine, too. It’s important to be prepared with information about this year’s vaccine and its benefits, as well as its potential side effects. For example, there are two new quadrivalent flu vaccines available this year for adults 65 and older, and your patients may have questions about that. You might want to provide a handout with easy-to-understand language about the flu vaccination for your patients.  The CDC has several that free printable materials available.

“I recommend telling patients to get the flu shots as soon as possible,” says Roizen. “Because it takes two weeks after the vaccination for the antibodies to help protect the body, the sooner your patients are vaccinated, the more likely they are to be protected before they come in contact with the virus.”

Embrace other preventive measures

Experts regularly recommend these steps, often called non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPI), to reduce the spread of the flu:

  • Frequent handwashing
  • Covering your mouth when you sneeze or cough
  • Avoid close contact with others with people who are sick
  • Stay home when you are sick
  • Avoid touching your mouth, nose, and eyes  

This year, in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s a good idea to take additional steps. Infectious disease experts are urging people to socially distance and to wear a facial covering, like a mask, when they’re unable to remain socially distant from other people. 

But people may get confused by conflicting information that they’re hearing or seeing online. That’s where healthcare professionals come in.

“As a trusted source of medical information and advice, it’s crucial that we take our role as physicians very seriously in reminding and informing our patients about the benefits of protective measures like wearing a mask, washing hands and social distancing,” says Roizen. 

There’s good reason for these behaviors, notes Shirin Peters, MD, medical director of Bethany Medical Clinic of New York.

“In the Southern Hemisphere, where the flu season is coming to an end now, the level of infection was far less than normal because people have been following recommendations to prevent spread of COVID-19, such as socially distancing, wearing masks and hand washing,” she says. “If we do the same, perhaps we may also have far fewer infections in the fall and winter.”

COVID-19 and the flu tend to start with very similar symptoms: fever and cough. Because of that it may be impossible to tell if you have one or the other without testing, notes Peters. 

“I advise connecting with your primary care team (or establishing care with a new practice) via telemedicine if you start to have flu-like symptoms this fall,” she says. “If a test or emergency care is a necessary next step, your primary care team will be able to offer guidance.”  

Information for Healthcare Professionals About COVID-19
Influenza (Flu) Information for Health Professionals
‘Is It Safe?’ How to Put Patients at Ease Post-COVID-19

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