Preparing for Flu Season Amid COVID-19

How to avoid overlapping outbreaks

By Sabrina Jonas

Colder months yield red noses from both frost and flu. ‘Tis the season. Flu season, that is. But in the midst of the pandemic, many are wondering if their symptoms are indeed indicative of influenza or something more sinister. Some are already worried on behalf of our health care system in the event of two overlapping outbreaks. Before becoming stuck on the source of every sniffle, understand the best way to help curb the spread of both illnesses this year.

When it comes to prepping for a wave of flu-struck patients and those with flu-like symptoms amid this pandemic, many health officials are relying on educating and reminding the public of their roles in curbing transmission. Dr. Ciriaco A. Piccirillo, senior scientist at the Research Institute of McGill University Health Centre (RI-MUHC) is one of these people.

"The best virus we can spread is education," he said with a chuckle.

Dr. Piccirillo understands the importance of education, being an associate professor in the department of microbiology and immunology at McGill University. He says the best way to prevent overlapping outbreaks is to adhere to the safety measures implemented for COVID-19 and most importantly, to be vaccinated.

This advice might be heeded more stringently this year, as a survey conducted by Pollara for the Canadian Pharmacists Association found that 57 per cent out of 1,912 respondents said they would receive the flu shot in the wake of the pandemic.

Meanwhile, for all the chaos and catastrophe COVID-19 has caused, it may have revealed a silver lining in the Southern Hemisphere. When the peak of the pandemic and flu season hit countries like Australia simultaneously, health officials waited for a wave of influenza that never came. Indeed, it seems as though the COVID-19 protocols surpassed their initial intentions.

Experts believe safety measures like social distancing, frequent handwashing, and masks are reasons behind the significant decrease in cases of influenza this year. Dr. Piccirillo expects a very similar outcome in North America, where flu rates are already down. A June report from Canada's flu surveillance showed "exceptionally low levels" of influenza activity across the country.

But the hard part about maintaining momentum for these measures has yet to come. As temperatures begin to plummet, patios will close, and parks will become blanketed with snow. Canadians are going to start packing onto busses to escape the bitter cold and cramming into gyms to keep that winter weight at bay.

"There's a very legitimate concern for the upcoming flu season when it comes to a surge in COVID-19 cases," says Dr. Piccirillo.

That's why he says getting vaccinated is the first step in battling the double whammy we're facing. Being able to rule out influenza as the source of symptoms and giving your body a better chance at fighting it off will put less strain on both your health and the health care system.

So, do you have the flu or COVID-19? Dr. Piccirillo cites the "holy trinity" as tell-tale signs for the latter: High, persisting or irregular fever; a dry cough; and shortness of breath or difficulty breathing. "Very few COVID-19 patients have presented with a runny nose," he says, saying that's often indicative of the flu.

To add to the host of pandemic problems brought on by these frosty months, throw darker days, Seasonal Affective Disorder, and isolation into the mix.

"We're social beings and for a social being to be told that they can't be social could cause another wave of mental health issues," says Dr. Piccirillo.

He suggests planning for the holidays now and enjoying them with loved ones while staying vigilant and responsible about safety measures.

"You might have to sacrifice a few other parties this year in order to be with family safely."

Given the events of the past six months, it seems a small price to pay.


Fall 2020, Vol 12 N°4

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Fall 2020
Vol 12 N°4

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