LIMA — The arrival of a new flu season amid the coronavirus pandemic threatens to strain hospitals and COVID-19 testing systems at a time when little is known about co-infection of influenza and COVID-19.
But the precautionary measures meant to stem the coronavirus pandemic combined with more people using the flu vaccine could yield a relatively mild flu season — if Americans continue to practice social distancing, face masking and frequent hand washing.
“(The) bottom line is we don’t know,” said Dr. Ryan Schwieterman, a physician with the department of hospital medicine at Mercy Health-St. Rita’s Medical Center.
Countries in the Southern Hemisphere, whose flu seasons trend in the spring and summer, experienced a mild flu season in 2020. This, to Schwieterman, suggests mask wearing and social distancing may have played an important role in decreasing influenza transmission that could be repeated here.
Hospitals will likely bring back triage testing, in which a patient with flu-like symptoms will call a primary care doctor or call center before getting tested for a variety of respiratory illnesses, including COVID-19 and influenza — as was common at the start of the pandemic, when testing supplies were scarce and flu season was still underway in Ohio.
Dr. Matt Owens, chief clinical officer for Mercy Health-St. Rita’s, said the first two to three weeks that the hospital was identifying COVID-19 patients were difficult, because differentiating between COVID-19 and influenza was almost impossible and testing was far too limited at the time.
But testing capabilities have improved since March. More than 23,000 Ohioans were tested on Aug. 26, compared to just over 3,000 on March 26.
Owens is hopeful that testing supplies and capacity will continue to improve ahead of flu season, which would allow the hospital to test patients with flu-like symptoms for both COVID-19 and influenza, along with other respiratory illnesses.
But even so, Schwieterman said it will be hard to delineate the two when a patient arrives.
“At first, there will be no way to tell — is this a flu patient, is this a coronavirus patient or is this a common cold? It’s going to raise a challenge as far as testing and trying to keep people safe when they get sick,” Schwieterman said.
Much also depends on effectiveness of this year’s flu vaccine and Americans’ willingness to get it.
Some pharmacies in the area are already administering influenza vaccines, although the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend waiting until September or October to ensure the vaccine lasts through the peak of the season, which typically runs from November through February.
The flu vaccine does not work immediately, either.
Instead, it often takes about two weeks for someone to develop enough antibodies from the vaccine to protect them from the flu, according to the CDC.