By Olivia Montes
As many Americans are aware, the COVID-19 pandemic continues to be a very real aspect of our reality.
And now, as the fall begins to turn into cold winter weather, there is yet another season steadily on its way: that of influenza.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the 2019-2020 United States flu season alone — despite being labelled as mild — resulted in an estimated 39 million to 56 million cases, with nearly 740,000 hospitalizations and between 24,000 to 62,000 related deaths.
While a mild flu season on its own is to be expected, the U.S. is still in the midst of a third surge of COVID-19. Because of this, this season is stamped to be a “twindemic,” in which the possibilities of contracting either illness, or both, are increasingly high.
Here are a few tips as to what you should do to keep yourself healthy and safe amid an approaching twindemic.
Get a flu shot.
While it is uncertain whether the 2020-21 flu season within the U.S. will be severe, or if there will be that much of an epidemic to begin with, health experts emphasized the importance of Americans getting the flu shot — and fast.
This past July, in an interview with MarketWatch’s Quentin Fottrell, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has reached out to the American people prior to the fall, urging them to make an appointment and get a flu shot to “at least blunt the effect of one of those two potential respiratory infections.”
According to the CDC, typical flu seasons can last throughout fall and winter, peak during December to February, and usually end with the arrival of spring somewhere around early to mid-March. However, because national COVID-19 cases are still on the rise, citizens need to be extra attentive and take the proper precautions to lower their chances of being infected with either illness.
Even while getting a flu shot offers substantial protection, that does not mean it will completely protect you from the flu — and grants zero protection from COVID-19.
Despite this, however, health experts still urge citizens to get a flu shot regardless.
According to The New York Times reporter Jan Hoffman, “40 to 60 percent successful in combating the strains of flu that appear any given year, depending on a variety of factors,” which means that, even if you do contract the flu, this vaccine will help decrease your chances of being hospitalized or dying from the illness.
While there might not be a vaccine readily available to stop the spread of COVID-19, there is one for the flu, and it is urgent that you get one as soon as possible.
“As health officials note, should a vaccinated person contract the flu, the severity will almost certainly be reduced, hospitalization rarely necessary,” Hoffman said on Oct. 12. “Especially with COVID-19 raging…those odds look pretty good.”
Continue to check your symptoms.
With the expected arrival of the flu this season, most people are familiar with the common symptoms, which include headaches, runny noses, sore throats, and consistent coughing and sneezing.
With COVID-19, however, indicators are more difficult to pinpoint. An Apr. 30 report by the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy said that over an estimated 25% of total COVID-19 cases are asymptomatic, meaning that common symptoms associated with the virus, including a high fever or chills, shortness of breath or difficulty breathing, and a consistent cough, may develop later.
“Once a person has been infected, the flu is contagious for a shorter period of time than scientists believe COVID-19 is [while a] flu patient can usually transmit the virus from a few days before developing symptoms until about 24 hours after those symptoms go away,” The Washington Post reporter Marisa Iati said. “Someone with COVID-19 is contagious before they develop symptoms and could be contagious for up to 10 days afterward.”
Becoming familiar with, and consistently checking, any potential symptoms associated with each virus can help spot and prevent you from further spreading what you might have, and ultimately allow you to take the next steps to help yourself get better.
Know the similarities — and thedifferences — between COVID-19, a cold, and the flu.
Aside from being on the lookout for symptoms of COVID-19 and the flu, other contagious diseases are also gaining traction in the fall, including the common cold.
While these viral-borne illnesses appear to be vastly different from one another, they actually share many of the most common signs, including a high fever, chills, aches, and difficulty breathing.
“There are at least 100 viruses that can cause the common cold, but only four that cause seasonal flu,” The New York Timesscience reporter Donald G. McNeil Jr. said on Oct. 6. “Knowing whether you have COVID-19 is much more complicated because there are so many different — and sometimes pretty wacky — symptoms, many of which echo those of the flu.”
In addition to knowing these shared symptoms, being aware of the key differences between these three infections, such as, according to McNeil, the sudden loss of your sense of smell versus a runny nose allows you to effectively assess which of those three you may have, and then respond accordingly to how you are feeling.
Expect delays if you plan to get tested.
If you have already gotten your flu shot and wish to get tested for COVID-19, make sure to expect a long line of others waiting to be swabbed for the virus.
But be prepare to wait for — and be wary of — your own results.
Though testing continues to be an active and reliable source for many individuals, it also comes with a significant risk.
Because several COVID-19 cases, as previously mentioned, are and can be asymptomatic, the results of many negative tests are coming into question. According to the CDC, infections have been reported to appear two to 14 days after being exposed to the virus, primarily arriving after five to seven days.
While you might be satisfied with taking one test, do not let that be the only test you take; if you are able to afford it, be sure to take an additional test to be absolutely sure of the outcome — both for the safety and well-being of yourself and those around you.
“Two negative PCR [polymerase chain reaction] tests taken at least 24 hours apart are a better indication of whether or not you are infection-free,” McNeil said. “If your insurance company will pay for only one test, you might consider paying for the second one yourself for the peace of mind.”
Know what to expect in the coming months.
As indicated by many health experts and organizations, both the national and global presence of COVID-19 continues to linger over each decision people make regarding their health and safety.
With now 11 million cases and nearly 250,000 related deaths reported in the U.S., and over 600,000 new cases around the world, according to the CDC, it’s still probable that this virus, and possibly its descents, will continue to become as “endemic as the flu,” according to U.K. chief scientific advisor Patrick Vallance.
“The notion of eliminating [COVID-19] from anywhere is not right, because it will come back,” Vallance said to the National Security Strategy Committee in London, as reported by CNBC on Oct. 12. “Clearly as management becomes better, as you get vaccination which would decrease the chance of infection and the severity of disease … this then starts to look more like annual flu than anything else, and that may be the direction we end up going.”
Even with the introduction of an approved, combative vaccine, as Vallance and others indicate, there is still the chance this virus will continue to evolve at a similar pace to that of the flu, and could possibly manifest into a co-infectious season at the same time next year.
With this in mind, it’s vital for individuals to understand where the future of COVID-19 could lead — and thus make an effective plan as to what old and new habits to adopt under these circumstances.
“The strategies for protecting against the flu are the same ones that guard against COVID-19: wear a mask in public, maintain physical distance from other people, wash your hands frequently and stay home when you’re sick,” Iati said.
Though the future continues to remain uncertain, making sure we continue to uphold these health practices will not only prevent further spreads or surges of either illness, but will also, hopefully, keep ourselves — and one another — safe.
Featured Photo caption: As COVID-19 cases continue to rise, and with the arrival of flu season, individuals are looking for ways to keep themselves from contracting either virus — here are a few ways to get prepared. Photo Courtesy of Kelly Sikkema.