High demand for flu shots? Experts hope to avoid 'twindemic' (copy)

A flu vaccine is prepared to give to National Foundation for Infectious Diseases staff members Sept. 30 in Bethesda, Md. Wisconsin health officials are urging people to get the flu vaccine this year, hoping to nudge up the state's vaccination rate in a winter season when the country will also likely be struggling against another highly contagious respiratory virus, COVID-19. 

EAU CLAIRE — There are plenty of unanswered questions about how the U.S. will handle the upcoming influenza season while struggling to contain and track another contagious respiratory virus, COVID-19.

But local health experts say that getting a flu shot is one of the most important things to do this winter.

“We don’t have much data, as of now, on what kind of impacts co-infection of both influenza and COVID-19 have on an individual,” said Meranda Eggebrecht, registered nurse and clinical quality nurse specialist for Marshfield Clinic Health System.

People can be infected with both viruses, but experts don’t know how that will affect people’s health, either short term or long term, Eggebrecht said Wednesday at a virtual webinar on influenza and COVID-19.

It’s possible that social distancing and masks will help reduce the spread of influenza this season, she added. But that’s a big “if.”

“Given the COVID-19 pandemic is still relatively new, we don’t know how it’s going to interact with our influenza season in the Northern Hemisphere … it’s important for us to plan for this upcoming season as if it’s going to be similar to the influenza season we’ve seen in the past, or potentially more severe,” Eggebrecht said.

Forty percent of Eau Claire County residents received the flu vaccine in the 2019-2020 season, according to the state DHS.

Experts also expect the flu shot to help keep people from being stuck in quarantine. Health departments are recommending that people stay isolated until they test negative if they’re having any COVID-19 symptoms, but during the flu season, the number of people with those flu-like symptoms could skyrocket.

During the 2019-2020 flu season, 42% of Wisconsin residents got the flu vaccine; just over 36,000 flu cases were reported, according to the state Department of Health Services. Just over 4,400 Wisconsin residents were hospitalized with the flu during the last flu season, and 183 died, including three children, according to the DHS. That season also saw the highest number of pregnant women in Wisconsin hospitalized for influenza.

Since March, over 158,000 Wisconsin residents have tested positive for COVID-19, and 1,536 have died, according to the DHS.

How are the flu and COVID-19 similar?

  • Both are contagious respiratory illness caused by different viruses, according to the CDC.
  • Both spread “primarily from person-to-person in close contact, or through the air (by) talking, sneezing or conversing” with others, Eggebrecht said.
  • Both viruses can cause similar symptoms: fever, chills, cough, shortness of breath, difficulty breathing, fatigue, sore throat, a stuffy nose, body aches and headache are common signs of both illnesses.

What are the differences between the flu and COVID-19?

  • One common symptom of COVID-19 is a loss of taste or smell: “We don’t typically see that with influenza,” Eggebrecht said.
  • People might take longer to show symptoms of COVID-19 — flu symptoms tend to come on more rapidly, Eggebrecht said.
  • COVID-19 “seems to spread more easily than the flu” and causes more serious illness in some people, according to the CDC.
  • While there are several licensed vaccines that offer some protection against the flu, there is currently no vaccine to prevent COVID-19, though in-person trials are underway.

The influenza vaccine won’t protect against SARS-CoV-2 — the virus that causes COVID-19 — but it’ll make it more easy to distinguish between the two illnesses, said Lieske Giese, director of the Eau Claire City-County Health Department, in August.

The goal is to get a flu shot by the end of October, Eggebrecht said, but doctors will continue to recommend the vaccine “as long as there are viruses circulating, and most years that happens well into the spring.”

It takes the body about two weeks to build up antibodies for influenza after the shot.

Getting a flu shot cannot give the recipient influenza, Eggebrecht noted, when asked about common misconceptions about the vaccine.

Flu shots are either made with inactive viruses, or with only a single protein from the flu virus, according to the CDC, and cannot give the recipient influenza (though some people report mild side effects after getting the shot).

To schedule a flu shot, DHS recommends people contact their health care provider, check with a local pharmacy or visit vaccinefinder.gov. If the cost of the vaccine is prohibitive, children may qualify for the Wisconsin Vaccines for Children Program, dhs.wisconsin.gov/immunization/vfc.htm.

Contact: 715-833-9206, sarah.seifert@ecpc.com, @sarahaseifert on Twitter

Sarah Seifert is the L-T's education and health reporter. She has worked as a journalist in the Chippewa Valley since 2017 and joined the L-T in 2019. Get in touch at sarah.seifert@ecpc.com or on Twitter @sarahaseifert.