Vaccinations key to mitigating flu season during pandemic, health officials say

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While there’s no way to predict how the pandemic and the flu season will affect one another, Lafene Health Center is preparing for it. (Photo Illustration by Julie Freijat | Collegian Media Group)

Editor’s note: An original version of this story was published that omitted the words “so you can be seen” from the last quote. The error has been corrected.

Flu season is creeping around the corner, yet COVID-19 continues to run rampant. While there’s no way to predict how the pandemic and the flu season will affect one another, Lafene Health Center is preparing for it. That’s why the flu vaccine will be so important this year, Abby King, associate nursing director at Lafene, said.

Even though COVID-19 did not take full force in the U.S. until after the peak of the last flu season, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said it is possible to have both illnesses simultaneously.

King said she doesn’t know of any specific correlation between how one virus would affect the contagion of another, but that with any infection, the immune system is weakened and an individual’s susceptibility to infection increases.

COVID-19 and influenza come from different viral families, but cause similar symptoms when they infect humans, like fever, fatigue, cough or a sore throat.

King said it’s up to the individual health provider to determine whether these symptoms can be attributed to COVID-19 or the flu, but someone showing the shared symptoms will likely be tested for both.

Local health officer Julie Gibbs said the Riley County Health Department’s clinical task force collaborates with school nurses to create a protocol for dealing with flu-like symptoms in students.

While antiviral treatment can be used for the flu, most treatment involves symptom relief and rest.

King said on average each year, Lafene sees about 150 positive influenza tests.

Preliminary estimates from the CDC suggest there were 38 million flu cases during the 2019-2020 flu season. Since Jan. 21, the CDC reported over eight million cases of COVID-19.

This year, King said, Lafene will keep data on coinfection as well. The local health department will also collect data about coinfection, Gibbs said. RCHD uses syndromic surveillance to record potential influenza cases throughout the county, which involves monitoring cases that present symptoms related to the flu.

Gibbs said she hopes it will be a mild year for the flu because of the safeguards already in place for COVID-19 can prevent the spread of other illnesses.

“That’s going to help protect us,” Gibbs said. “We’ve been pushing this social distancing for the longest time now and I think people are more aware of that now, and they are staying their distance, they are staying away from crowded places.”

The flu vaccine can also help soften the blow on the healthcare system in the upcoming cold season, according to the CDC. Gibbs said she hopes more people get the flu vaccine this year

“Things like wearing your mask and staying your distance and washing your hands — those things are going to protect you from both,” Gibbs said. “But the main difference that we have is that the flu has a vaccine and [COVID-19] doesn’t right now, so that’s why we’re really pushing for the flu vaccine this year.”

In addition to practicing good hand hygiene, covering coughs and sneezes and getting the flu vaccine, King said there are other ways for students and faculty to prevent catching COVID-19 or the flu.

“Wearing your mask when physical distancing is not able to happen, staying home from events, class, work when you’re not feeling well,” she said. “And then going to see your provider when you are sick so you can be seen and be given guidance on what you can do for your illness.”

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Hi there! I'm Julie Freijat. I'm the copy chief and deputy managing editor of the Collegian. In the past, I've served as an editor on the news and culture desks and worked closely with the multimedia staff. I love science and technology, hate poor movie dialogue and my favorite subreddit is r/truecrime.