CORONAVIRUS

With pandemic, flu shots 'more important this year than ever before'

Measures to mitigate COVID-19 could slow influenza transmission, too

Registered nurse Jen Eley administers a flu shot Thursday for Tracie Simmons of Cedar Rapids in a drive-through clinic a
Registered nurse Jen Eley administers a flu shot Thursday for Tracie Simmons of Cedar Rapids in a drive-through clinic at the Edgewood Road NE Hy-Vee store in Cedar Rapids. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)
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Influenza season is expected to begin in earnest in the coming weeks as winter starts to take hold — leaving health care officials nationwide fearful that the seasonal virus could exacerbate the ongoing pandemic.

“It’s more important this year than ever before to get a flu shot because of COVID-19,” said Stephanie Cooper, a nurse and Mercy Medical Center’s director of employee health and clinic operations. “We don’t want to have both of those viruses at the same time and we know we can prevent the flu with the vaccine.”

Eastern Iowa health care systems have ramped up their vaccination campaigns this year, stating that the sooner individuals can get a flu shot, the better. These vaccine administrations began in earnest just last month, so Cedar Rapids hospital officials say it’s too soon to say whether compliance rates are better or worse than before.

University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics pharmacists report they’ve administered almost 5,000 vaccines so far this year — a very good start, said Robert Linnell, physician assistant and lead provider for UI Quick Care.

But the flu season may have another factor working against the spread this year. Local providers are optimistic the measures met to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus may also keep this year’s flu season from overwhelming Corridor hospitals in the midst of the pandemic.

WHERE TO GET A FLU SHOT: Locations in Cedar Rapids, Iowa City areas

Officials at both Cedar Rapids hospitals reported that a late-season surge of influenza cases came about the same time earlier this year as the first cases of COVID-19 were first appearing in Eastern Iowa, alarming local health care providers who worried about fighting two viruses instead of one.

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However, as the state locked down and quarantine measures were put in place in March, those flu cases dwindled.

“As soon as we shut down the (hospitals) and started wearing masks and social distancing, the flu epidemic evaporated. In two weeks, that spike was gone,” said Dr. Clete Younger, a family medicine physician with UnityPoint Health-Cedar Rapids.

That means if Iowans and other Americans continue practicing social distancing, wearing face coverings and other practices commonly referenced throughout the pandemic, this year’s flu season “may be milder this year,” said Dr. Jorge Salinas, infectious disease specialist at UIHC.

“If we tried to continue our lives without using face coverings, social distancing and hand hygiene, it could be very problematic,” he said. “We could have two epidemics at once. That, rest assured, could be very problematic for our health system.”

Lower Rate Worldwide

U.S. public health experts typically look to the southern hemisphere to predict the season.

In studying the flu strain affecting that part of the world, experts found that counties that have done well at controlling COVID-19 also saw a minimal increase in flu cases, Salinas said during a Sept. 3 virtual news conference.

According to a late August report from the World Health Organization, flu activity worldwide was at lower levels than expected for this time of year. In some areas “very few influenza detections were reported.”

The World Health Organization report states that certain factors with the ongoing pandemic — such as the closure of health clinics — may have influenced this data. But it also notes steps to reduce transmission of COVID-19 “have likely played a role in reducing influenza virus transmission.”

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Being Cautious

Still, the concern that COVID-19 and the flu — both contagious respiratory illness — could overwhelm local health care systems is prevalent. Typically, flu cases see an increase after individuals travel for the holidays to see family across the country, Younger said. But it’s hard to predict what may happen when the holidays come this November and December.

There are key differences in symptoms between the two viruses, and COVID-19 presents a greater risk for complications.

Still, since they are both respiratory viruses, influenza and the novel coronavirus can present with similar symptoms, such as fever, cough and a runny nose.

“If patients have any symptoms — and definitely any flu-like symptoms — they need to get an appointment with their primary care provider,” Linnell said. “ … If you have these symptoms, it’s better to be cautious and be evaluated.”

Comments: (319) 398-8469; michaela.ramm@thegazette.com

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