- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 1, 2020

More U.S. adults said they plan on getting the flu vaccine this season compared to last season as health experts warn about a potential impending “twindemic” during the upcoming colder months.

A national survey released Thursday by leading health officials found that 59% of U.S. adults planned on getting a flu vaccine this season compared to 48% who got vaccinated during the 2019-2020 season.

Flu activity often starts to increase in October, and this year coincides with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic — a respiratory illness that shares many similar traits to influenza and could lead to possible complications to the health care system.

“It will be hard for physicians and other health care providers to tell the difference between the diseases based on symptoms alone and testing may be necessary to confirm a diagnosis and even testing has its limitations and challenges,” Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease expert at Vanderbilt University, told reporters during a webcast. “Additionally, many of the same people who are most vulnerable to serious complications of COVID-19, including older adults and those with chronic health conditions, are also at greater risk for complications from flu.”

According to the survey, 28% of respondents say they are more likely to get a flu vaccine due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The survey by the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases (NFID) included 1,000 responses from adults 18 years and older from all 50 states and the District.

Nearly half of survey respondents, 46%, are very worried about contracting COVID-19, but only 23% are similarly concerned about being infected with the flu. The same percentage of respondents are worried about being co-infected with both COVID-19 and flu.

As of Thursday, the coronavirus has sickened more than 7.2 million people in the U.S. and killed more than 207,000, a tally from Johns Hopkins University shows.

For the 2019-2020 flu season, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported 38 million influenza illnesses, 18 million medical visits, 400,000 hospitalizations and 22,000 deaths in the U.S.

Shared symptoms of both flu and COVID-19 include fever, cough, shortness of breath, fatigue, sore throat, runny nose, body aches, headache, vomiting and diarrhea.

Due to both illnesses spreading at the same time, doctors warn it could cause confusion and stretch health systems to the limit and are urging people to get their flu shot to reduce the possible burden to these systems and to protect vulnerable populations.

Top infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci on Thursday touted the benefits of the flu vaccine, which he said can provide partial protection even if a person does get sick. He noted the CDC estimates the flu vaccine prevented 7.5 million illnesses and 6,300 flu deaths last season.

“Influenza vaccinations are important to prevent infection and to modify infections when you get it It is a serious disease. It is not trivial,” he said. “You superimpose that with the challenge we will inevitably face with COVID as we get into fall and winter and go more indoors which will be challenging for the prevention of a respiratory infection. So let’s do what we can with the tools that we have.”

While the Southern Hemisphere, where the flu season runs from April to end of August, reported a dramatic drop in influenza cases, CDC influenza director Dr. Daniel Jernigan said he is unsure if that would be the case for the U.S.

“As we go into this flu season and fall and winter, people are not going to be able to eat outside. They are going to have to eat inside at restaurants. They’re going to be spending more time inside. People are probably going to go to work more than they were previously and schools are opening up,” Dr. Jernigan said. “We know that influenza really likes school children. They like university students, and those are settings where transmission can occur with flu. So if those kinds of transmissions are happening, or those opportunities occur, both COVID and flu can take off. So we don’t know exactly what will happen.”

The NFID survey also found that 15% of respondents said they were not sure if they would get a flu vaccine.

For those who don’t plan to get a flu vaccine or are unsure, 34% replied they do not think flu vaccines work very well, 32% said they never get the flu, 29% expressed concern about potential side effects from the vaccine, 22% reported concern about getting the flu from the vaccine and 17% responded they are worried about potential exposure to COVID-19 if they go out to get vaccinated.

Almost a quarter of respondents, 22%, who are at higher risk for complications linked to the flu said they were not planning on getting vaccinated this season. However, data shows that 93% of adults hospitalized for the flu had at least one underlying health condition that increased their risk for complications.

It is recommended that everyone 6 months and older get a flu shot before the end of October. The shot also can be given simultaneously with the vaccine for pneumococcal pneumonia, a possible serious complication of the flu.

Other complications include heart, brain or muscle tissue inflammation and multi-organ failure. Young children, adults 65 years and older and pregnant women are at greater risk of developing flu complications. Long-term complications from both influenza and COVID-19 could lead to a higher risk of heart attack and stroke.

Health officials say steps to fight both the flu and coronavirus are similar including wearing a mask, maintaining a physical distance of at least 6 feet, washing hands frequently, staying home if sick and disinfecting frequently touched surfaces.

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