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FLU SEASON 2020: Protect Yourself Against Two Viruses

17 December 2020

From Patricia Rose, Naval Health Clinic Oak Harbor

Influenza Vaccinations from Naval Health Clinic Oak Harbor (NHCOH) have been delayed for eligible family members of active duty and retired military, but that does not mean you should wait.

Due to COVID-19, the need to guard against the flu is even more important. The flu vaccination is a covered benefit and TRICARE will be directly billed if beneficiaries get vaccinated at any community outlet, such as the civilian pharmacies that accept TRICARE. There is no out of pocket expense for the beneficiary.

In conjunction with Centers for Disease and Prevention (CDC), NHCOH leadership and public health emergency officers (PHEOs) stress the need for getting the annual influenza vaccination, especially during the ongoing pandemic outbreak.

“You need to protect yourself and not spread the flu, especially this year. We must take care of the one – influenza – before we can effectively take care of the other – COVID-19,” stressed Lt. Cmdr. Elise Brandon, NHCOH PHEO.

The CDC, Navy Medicine and other leading health agencies have long been aware that the start of the annual cold and flu season, along with the continued need to stop the spread of COVID-19, presents an overlapping public health concern.

There are also similarities and differences in symptoms between COVID-19 and influenza. Both are contagious respiratory illnesses. COVID-19 is caused by infection with the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2. Flu is caused by infection with influenza viruses.

The CDC notes that COVID-19 seems to spread more easily than flu and causes more serious illnesses in some people, particularly the elderly with underlying health issues. It can also take longer before people show symptoms and they can be contagious for longer.

A crucial difference in the two illnesses is that there’s readily available vaccine to protect against flu. Until the vaccine to prevent COVID-19 is generally available in the coming months, the best way to prevent infection is to avoid being exposed to the coronavirus which causes COVID-19 disease.

Because some of the symptoms of flu and COVID-19 are similar, it may be hard to tell the difference between them based on symptoms alone.

Similarities: Both COVID-19 and flu can have varying degrees of signs and symptoms, ranging from no symptoms (asymptomatic) to severe symptoms.

Common symptoms that COVID-19 and flu share include:
• Fever or feeling feverish/chills
• Cough
• Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
• Fatigue (tiredness)
• Sore throat
• Runny or stuffy nose
• Muscle pain or body aches
• Headache
• Some people may have vomiting and diarrhea, though this is more common in children than adults

Differences: Those stricken with COVID-19 also note a lapse of taste and smell.

Another difference is that if a person has COVID-19, it could take them longer to develop symptoms than if they had flu. Typically, a person develops symptoms five days after being infected, but symptoms can appear as early as two days after infection or as late as 14 days after infection, and the time range can vary. With the flu, a person typically develops symptoms anywhere from one to four days after infection.

There’s also similarities and differences how both viruses spread.

Both COVID-19 and flu can spread from person-to-person, between people who are in close contact with one another (six feet and less). Both are spread mainly by droplets made when people with either COVID-19 or flu cough, sneeze, or talk. These droplets can land in the mouths or noses of people who are nearby or possibly be inhaled into the lungs.

It may be possible that a person can get infected by physical human contact – such as shaking hands - or by touching a surface or object that has virus on it and then touching their mouth, nose, or eyes.

Both viruses can be spread to others by people before they begin showing symptoms, or if they have only have mild symptoms or even if they never developed symptoms (asymptomatic).

The differences are that while COVID-19 and flu viruses are thought to spread in similar ways, COVID-19 is more contagious among certain populations and age groups than flu. The virus that causes COVID-19 can quickly and easily spread to a lot of people and result in continuous spreading among people as time progresses.

Both COVID-19 and flu can result in complications, including pneumonia, respiratory failure and acute respiratory distress syndrome (i.e. fluid in lungs).

According to Cmdr. Amanda Schaffeld, NHCOH Population Health Officer, immunization remains the primary method of reducing seasonal influenza illness and its complications. The seasonal influenza vaccine not only helps protect vaccinated individuals, but also helps protect entire communities by preventing and reducing the spread of the disease.

“Getting the flu shot helps protect someone once the flu season starts in their community. The vaccination can reduce flu illnesses, doctors' visits, and missed work and school due to the illness,” Schaffeld said.

Schaffeld also emphasizes that just as it is important for military personnel who live and work in close quarters to receive the vaccine, it is also strongly advised for school-aged children, even if their school year has been altered during the pandemic.

“Influenza is not the common cold. It can be a life-threatening disease that especially can put specific groups in jeopardy,” explained Schaffeld. “While certainly people with respiratory conditions, such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), are at increased risk, those over 65, young children, and pregnant women would be at the top of my list.”

There are four ‘c’s to help stop the spread of COVID-19 as well as the flu – cover, clean, confine and crowd-avoidance.

Cover: Cover your cough and sneeze. Always. But not with your hands. Use your shoulder, upper arm, or crook of your elbow.
Clean: Wash your hands. As often as possible. Scrub your hands for at least 20 seconds with soap and water, or use an alcohol-based hand cleaner.
Confine: If ill, stay home until well to avoid spreading germs
Crowd-avoidance: Especially steer clear of settings in which you cannot maintain social distancing of 6 feet.

Of course the extra guidance for COVID-19, wear your mask….

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