As the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic continues to infect over eight million Americans and contribute to the deaths of over 200,000 more, health experts now add the flu as another issue that disease experts and doctors are attempting to manage.
Flu season starts in the fall and runs through to the end of winter. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates and documents flu symptomatic illnesses, medical visits, hospitalizations and deaths. The CDC reported that during the 2019-2020 flu season, there were approximately 22,000 flu-related deaths. Despite this period coinciding with the emergence of COVID-19, the number is actually a decrease from the 2018-2019 estimates, which saw 34,200 deaths.
Dr. Sharon Nachman, the chief of the division of pediatric infectious diseases at Stony Brook Medicine, emphasized in an interview with The Statesman the importance of understanding proper health measures during flu season.
“I think more people are getting the flu vaccine because of COVID-19,” she said. “We expect this flu season to be like other flu seasons, but we’re hoping the rise in vaccinations will allow people to focus on not getting COVID-19.”
A recent minute-long video released by Stony Brook University shows President Maurie McInnis receiving the vaccine, along with a plea to students.
“This is a simple but profound act that can protect your friends, family, colleagues, classmates, and of course, yourself,” McInnis said during the video.
Sophomore biology major Sanjana Sankaran is among those who plan to get the flu vaccine.
“I am getting a flu shot, eventually,” she said. “I’m just scared to go to a doctor’s office at the moment; the place where I get my shots is also treating COVID-19 patients.”
Another student, senior English major Ashley Kowalczyk, also plans to get vaccinated.
“I usually get [a flu shot] every year and I feel like this year especially I wouldn’t want to risk [getting the flu] because I’m working in a school and living at home and I have family members who are at an increased risk so I wouldn’t want to get them sick or put them in danger,” Kowalczyk said.
While there is still more to be known about COVID-19, Nachman described it and the flu as two “completely different diseases.”
In an online panel hosted by Stony Brook Medicine, the Commissioners of Health for Suffolk and Nassau County, Dr. Gregson Pigott and Dr. Lawerence Eistenstein, explained what lies ahead this flu season.
Pigott said that while the flu has been around for more than a century, COVID-19 is new, which means that the body does not know how to handle it.
Where both share similar initial attributes, like a fever, cough or fatigue, COVID-19 has multisystem effects as it progresses, which allows the virus to affect multiple areas of one body.
“Although both spread through respiratory methods, we have anti-virus to treat the flu. For COVID-19, it’s [anti-virus is] extremely limited and ineffective at the moment,” Nachman said.
The flu vaccine can not prevent one from catching COVID-19, Eisenstein explained. However, he still believes it is the right move.
“No vaccine is 100% effective. Every year there is this discussion, which undermines the public health effort,” he said. “If you can protect 50% of the population from a deadly virus, that is not a bad thing. There is a certain level of cross-protection; the other 50% is less likely to get the disease. We have a vaccine that is safe and saves lives.”
He also said that during a flu and COVID-19 “twin-demic,” any steps that can be taken to control one’s health should be acknowledged.
Aside from the immediate concerns of the flu and COVID-19, Nachman explains there is a risk of catching both viruses and becoming a superspreader.
“They’re the people we refer to who can infect many people,” she said. “Although we don’t know why, we’ve seen their effectiveness.”
To avoid this, she encourages much of what is already being done to avoid contracting COVID-19: to wear a mask and avoid crowds.
“Be cautious about masking. If your mask is wet after speaking over time, it’s important to replace it with a dry one,” Nachman said.
Pigott emphasized that people should get the flu vaccination every fall.
“Control what you can control,” he said. “Get that flu shot; it will absolutely make a difference.”
If someone has signs of either the flu and/or COVID-19 and is unsure what to do, Nachman first says to isolate, before calling a health service provider or Student Health Services.
Student Health Services offers eligible students a cost-free flu shot. Students can choose from several dates and times on the West and Southampton campuses until Nov. 7 and should bring an insurance card to any appointment.