This year’s flu vaccine has reached Vermont and health officials say now is the time to get vaccinated, in hopes of avoiding a double-onslaught of flu season and the coronavirus.
At Gov. Phil Scott’s press conference Tuesday, Health Commissioner Mark Levine said Vermonters shouldn’t wait any later than September or October to get their flu shots this year.
“The flu vaccine is here,” Levine said. “It’s not here in large numbers yet, because it’s just coming in, but there are a number of pharmacies that already have it. So it’s available.”
Many experts suspect the added public health measures enacted in the last six months could greatly reduce the spread of the flu this fall and winter, but Levine said that, with the ongoing threat of Covid-19, this is a time to err on the side of caution.
“The hope is that the experience of handwashing, staying away when you’re sick, physically distancing and masking will reduce the level of flu in the community,” Levine said. “But I haven’t tested that theory yet.”
He said the fact that places in the Southern Hemisphere, such as Australia, have had significantly reduced flu seasons gives hope that, in the Northern Hemisphere, the flu might not be as big a concern as in a typical year — but he said there’s no data that can tell us for sure whether that will be the case.
Levine said the issue of flu shots is so important that he had hoped to get Dr. Anthony Fauci — the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who appeared briefly at Tuesday’s press conference with Gov. Phil Scott — to speak to the issue, though time didn’t ultimately allow for it.
Fauci has said there is some evidence to indicate that, if there is a rampant, ongoing respiratory illness like Covid-19, when another respiratory infection comes along like the seasonal flu, there is only enough room for one respiratory infection to reign supreme, so the rampant illness (in this case, Covid-19) dominates, bumping out the other (in this case, the flu).
Still, he said, the worst-case scenario still remains — both illnesses could come on hard this winter, straining the health care system beyond what it can handle.
The 2018-19 influenza season was considered “moderate,” with about 35.5 million Americans getting the flu, 16.5 million going to a health care provider for the illness, 490,600 hospitalizations, and 34,200 flu-related deaths.
Covid-19, by comparison, has been in the United States for a little over six months and has already infected over 6.5 million people and caused nearly 200,000 deaths.
Levine said one big concern about the flu is that initially it can be indistinguishable from Covid-19. He said symptoms such as fevers, coughs, chest pain, body aches and runny noses are all staples of both viruses, and the inability to understand which illness you have is never a good thing.
“This is why we are really encouraging people to get flu shots, so at least their chance of getting one of those two diseases is lessened,” Levine said. “And hopefully they won’t get the other one as well.”
In a typical year, Levine said when you come in with the easily identifiable set of flu symptoms, it’s a very easy thing to diagnose, especially when doctors see one flu patient after another.
“In this era, it’s going to be a little hard to make assumptions like that, if there’s still a reasonable amount of Covid circulating in the community,” he said.
A final key point, Levine said, which sometimes gets forgotten, is that there is a treatment for the flu. If people think they have the flu, they can take a prescription medicine that will help alleviate their symptoms.
“With Covid, there isn’t a magical pill that people can get just by calling the doctor and saying ‘I’ve got Covid’ — but, for the people who are the sickest, who end up in the hospital, we do have a number of treatments that will help lessen their illness as well, and perhaps even reduce mortality from the illness,” Levine said.
So either way, public health experts say, whether you think you have one illness or the other, or maybe can’t tell the difference, you should use the opportunities available to be tested and find treatment — or better yet, get your flu shot, and improve your odds.
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