The COVID-19 pandemic and the annual flu season will begin to overlap in less than a month and while nobody is sure what that is going to look like, there are some simple, common sense recommendations by health care and other professionals that will help keep people healthy.
For months we have been bombarded about masks, social distancing and sanitization and it is unlikely those COVID protocols will change anytime soon. Other prevention practices related to COVID include staying home if you don’t feel well and being placed under quarantine if you test positive for the virus so as not to spread it to others.
Steps to avoid the flu are the same basic measures as those to avoid COVID — sans the masks and mandatory quarantine. But the Center for Disease Control recommends covering the nose and mouth while sneezing or coughing and it is suggested people avoid coming into contact with sick people and to stay at home when sick so as not to spread the virus.
The fact the steps are similar stands to reason: both are viruses and both are spread mainly through person to person contact when air droplets are exchanged and people who are not yet showing symptoms of either virus can spread the it. And, both viruses can live within some people who don’t show any symptoms but can still spread germs to others who are more susceptible to serious ramifications.
On the plus side of the equation, since the two viruses are so similar and many of the COVID precautions are mandatory, they may work to help stem the spread of seasonal flu as well as COVID.
Staying — or getting — healthy
In addition to similar symptoms and preventative measures, COVID and the flu hit hardest those with compromised immune symptoms such as obesity, heart disease, hypertension, asthma and diabetes.
In New York state, of the more than 25,300 deaths attributed to COVID-19 more than 90 percent had a comorbidity, with 13,454 also having hypertension, 8,875 also having diabetes and 5,251 also being obese.
A healthy lifestyle does not cure or prevent COVID or the flu but it does help.
“COVID-19 has been proven to kill you if you are overweight, or if you have diseases related to being overweight — diabetes, heart disease and hypertension,” said Jessica Fuller, the owner of six yoga spas in the Capital District including in Latham and Albany. “There is one industry and one industry alone that can lessen the risk factor of getting COVID and dying from COVID and that is the fitness industry.”
Fuller, while appearing with Albany County Executive Dan McCoy during a press briefing, expressed frustration with New York state for not allowing gyms and other fitness centers to open with the rest of the economy. They have been closed since mid-March, and were just allowed to open under strict guidelines on Monday, Aug. 24.
“As a fitness owner, not only am I personally and professionally having a hard time, I cannot wrap my head around the thought process behind keeping fitness closed right now,” she said. “We opened our studios, our cross fit gyms, our boot camps, our spinning places to keep people healthy and right now, during a global pandemic that is killing you if you are not healthy, we had our hands tied.”
Whalen urged people to take advantage of the COVID lockdown that is still in effect for things like concerts and other large gatherings centered on the entertainment industry, to start getting healthy.
“As a public health and preventative medicine specialist, we at the Health Department advocate all the time the importance of physical fitness and do all you can to prevent against chronic diseases and other diseases we know are exacerbated by having extra weight or being physically unfit,” she said. “We have tried throughout this to advocate the thought of reengaging in physical activity. How we get our physical activity is so important and for many people being able to go to a gym, to a yoga studio to a pool is incredibly beneficial not only from a psychical perspective but from a psychological and a mental health perspective.”
Despite unprecedented resources, there is not a vaccination for COVID as of yet and once one is developed, widespread distribution is still months away. And even then, a vaccine will not eradicate the virus overnight, if at all.
Vaccinations for this flu season are available now, but the CDC recommends anyone older than six month to get vaccinated in September or October. Since the vaccinations are only effective for about six months, some doctors think getting vaccinated in July or August is too early since flu season peaks sometime between December and February and generally lasts until March or April. Waiting any longer than late October is too long since it does take a few weeks for the vaccine to establish itself and build the antibodies that protect the body from sickness.
“We are entering flu season and we want to be cautious going forward for September and the months after. It will remain important for citizens of the county, citizens of the state and citizens of the United States to continue to adhere important infection control guidelines of social distancing , of handwashing and wearing masks,” said Dr. Elizabeth Whalen, head of the Albany County Department of Health. “I would advise people to get vaccinated for influenza as soon as possible. As soon as they have a supply it is a good idea to get vaccinated for the flu and I would advise parents sending their kids back to school to make sure they are up to date on their vaccinations.”
Pharmacies began offering flu vaccinations last week but when people get a shot is up to them and their doctor. It is expected, though, more people will get vaccinated than ever before. The CDC is expecting private manufactures to produce up to 198 million doses of vaccine compared to the 175 million-dose record set during the 2019-20 season.
Getting a flu shot will look a little different this year. Most pharmacies are going to screen people for other illnesses first and shots will not be administered if a person is showing symptoms of any illness.
Like COVID, the flu and can be severe or benign and can run the gamut from death to a couple days on the couch to no symptoms at all. Every year health care systems brace for flu season and that concern is compounded exponentially by COVID.
“For the upcoming flu season, flu vaccination will be very important to reduce flu because it can help reduce the overall impact of respiratory illnesses on the population and thus lessen the resulting burden on the healthcare system during the COVID-19 pandemic,” according to the CDC.
Flu vaccines change every year because the flu mutates every year. As such, a somewhat an educated guessing game takes place to determine what strains of vaccines are manufactured. According to the CDC: “recent studies show that flu vaccination reduces the risk of flu illness by between 40 and 60 percent among the overall population during seasons when most circulating flu viruses are well-matched to the flu vaccine.”
It is still highly recommended, especially for older people and those with compromised immune systems and it is particularly recommended this year. It is not clear if having the flu will make a case of COVID more severe than it would have been in a person if the flu was not present. It is also not clear if getting any variation of a flu vaccine will at all limit the chances of getting COVID.
“Ensuring that people continue or start getting routine vaccinations during the COVID-19 pandemic is essential for protecting people and communities from vaccine-preventable diseases and outbreaks, including flu,” according to the CDC. “For the upcoming flu season, flu vaccination will be very important to reduce flu because it can help reduce the overall impact of respiratory illnesses on the population and thus lessen the resulting burden on the healthcare system during the COVID-19 pandemic.”
The significance of a vaccine is particularly important entering flu season if, as many people fear, history is going to repeat itself and a second wave of COVID is on the horizon. During the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918-20, the “second wave,” which hit roughly in September of 1918, was more considerably more deadly than the first. There are significant differences between now and then, though, and one is the evolution of science that now includes vaccinations.