Flu Season Could Further Strain Public Health Systems

Registered Nurse Claudina Prince administers a flu shot at a Dekalb County health center in Decatur, Ga., Monday, Feb. 5, 2018.

Registered Nurse Claudina Prince administers a flu shot at a Dekalb County health center in Decatur, Ga., Monday, Feb. 5, 2018. AP Photo/David Goldman


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The symptoms of the flu and coronavirus are similar and experts warn confusion over the two could overburden Covid-19 testing capacity.

The combination of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and the start of the cold and flu season in October has the potential to overburden U.S. public health systems, particularly Covid-19 testing capacity, health experts warn.  

The symptoms of influenza and Covid-19 infections are similar, and people infected with the flu may think they have coronavirus and seek out a test, said Dr. Andrew Pekosz, a virologist and co-director of the Johns Hopkins Center of Excellence for Influenza Research and Surveillance.

“This may put an increased burden on our Covid-19 testing infrastructure, which has already been a little stretched to the limits,” Pekosz said in a phone call this week with reporters.

The volume of Covid-19 tests across the United States has led to lengthy backlogs at laboratories, which means patients have had to wait days—if not weeks—to get results. In some cases, the long processing time makes the tests essentially useless since the recommended quarantine period after contracting the virus that causes Covid-19 is two weeks. Some states have instituted limits and testing priorities to help address the problems.

There is some evidence that social distancing measures meant to curb the spread of coronavirus could limit the severity of this year’s flu season. In the Southern Hemisphere, Australia, Chile and South Africa all reported low influenza activity during their flu season, according to a report issued this month by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And influenza infections in the United States in the winter “declined sharply within two weeks of the Covid-19 emergency declaration and widespread implementation of community mitigation measures,” the report states.

But public health experts warn that the potential for a mild flu season does not negate the need for people to get flu vaccines.

Dr. Daniel Salmon, director of the Institute for Vaccine Safety at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, advised that local public health agencies should step up messaging this year around the importance of getting vaccinated.

“It’s really important to personalize messages and not to use a one-size-fits-all approach and that is because people have a lot of different views on vaccines,” Salmon said.

As schools and businesses continue to reopen and people naturally move indoors to congregate during the winter months, health experts warn the people will be interacting more in environments that are prime for the spread of both coronavirus and influenza.

If people continue to take precautions like wearing masks, staying socially distant and frequently washing their hands, it could help reduce the number of infections from both illnesses.

Minimizing the number of flu cases this season will help healthcare professionals be better able to deal with any possible surge in Covid-19 infections that could occur this winter, Pekosz said.

Andrea Noble is a staff correspondent with Route Fifty.

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