Doctors, health agencies bracing for flu season's return; ready push for flu shots

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Sep. 22—EAU CLAIRE — Although the nation's typical seasonal wave of influenza never materialized last year, a phenomenon most health officials attribute to widespread pandemic precautions, doctors and health experts say this year could be a different story.

"Last year we had almost no cases of influenza at all," Mayo Clinic infectious disease specialist Dr. Priya Sampathkumar said in a call with reporters last week, attributing the lack of a 2020-21 flu season to mask-wearing and social distancing. "Last year being such a good season, having no one really get sick with influenza, means that this year more people are at risk. It makes it doubly important we all get vaccinated against influenza."

The severity of the flu season is unpredictable in any given year, said Allison Gosbin, public health nurse with the Eau Claire City-County Health Department. But there's reason to expect more influenza cases this year than last year, she noted.

"There's no way to predict a flu season in a year, when it's going to hit or how hard a season it's going to be ... but we do know that this year not as many people are wearing masks, travel is no longer limited like last year, and the stay-at-home orders are no longer in place," Gosbin said. "We do believe that all of those helped last year."

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also said there's a possibility this year's flu season could be worse than usual.

"Reduced population immunity due to lack of flu virus activity since March 2020 could result in an early and possibly severe flu season," the agency wrote in a flu FAQ this year.

The flu is typically mild for young or healthy people, Sampathkumar said, but can be severe and require hospitalization in the very young, the elderly and the immunocompromised.

As hospital systems strain under the burden of COVID-19 in some parts of the U.S. — and as Eau Claire hospitals this month report exhausted staff and similar worries — Sampathkumar said health experts will continue to plead that people take the flu vaccine this year.

"We need the same kinds of resources for both influenza and COVID — medical ICUs, ventilators, oxygen, respiratory therapists, ICU nurses and intensivists," Sampathkumar said. "We're definitely very worried. That's why we're talking about the flu vaccine, hoping to avert this pandemic."

It's not too early to get a flu shot right now, Gosbin said. She recommends people get vaccinated for the flu in September or October.

Flu shots are available in western Wisconsin, including at Prevea Health locations in Eau Claire, Altoona and Chippewa Falls, the health system said in a press release.

Prevea, HSHS Sacred Heart and HSHS St. Joseph's hospitals last week urged people to get both the flu and COVID-19 vaccines as soon as possible, noting that the hospitals' resources are strained right now due to COVID-19 patients.

"We need to be able to care for all patients, including those who need treatment for non-COVID conditions like influenza, RSV — which is common this time of year — injuries, stroke, trauma, heart attack, sepsis and so much more. But if our hospitals' emergency rooms and in-patient beds are full with COVID-19 patients, that makes it much more complicated," said Sacred Heart and St. Joseph's hospitals' chief nursing officer Jen Drayton.

Last flu season, about 44% of Wisconsin residents, and about 42% of Eau Claire County residents, got the flu shot. The state's goal is 70%.

The CDC recommends everyone older than six months old gets a flu vaccine.

Getting the flu vaccine is the best way to protect yourself against the flu, Gosbin said. Next are hand-washing, covering coughs and sneezes, and staying away from others when ill.

Is it the flu, or something more?

In most cases, it's impossible to tell the difference between COVID-19 and the flu based on someone's symptoms, Gosbin and Sampathkumar said.

Gosbin noted that it's possible to contract both viruses at once.

Both are contagious respiratory illnesses caused by different viruses; both can cause a fever, chills, cough, shortness of breath, difficulty breathing, fatigue, a sore throat, congestion, body aches and a headache. (However, one common symptom of COVID-19 is a loss of taste or smell, which isn't typically seen with influenza, Marshfield Clinic Health System registered nurse and clinical quality nurse specialist Meranda Eggebrecht told the Leader-Telegram last year.)

To distinguish between the flu and COVID-19, people "really do need to have the testing done," Gosbin said.

She added that to get the best protection against both COVID-19 and the flu, people need both shots.

"A COVID vaccine can't protect you from the flu, and the flu shot can't protect you from COVID-19," Gosbin said.

At many places, including doctors' offices, people will be able to get the COVID-19 and flu vaccines at the same time, Sampathkumar said.

RSV levels high

This fall, in addition to COVID-19 activity spiking, another respiratory virus is circulating at high levels.

While as of early September, Wisconsin was likely experiencing a very low level of influenza activity, the number of positive tests for respiratory syncytial virus have soared, according to the state Department of Health Services' weekly respiratory report.

RSV is a common virus that usually causes mild cold-like symptoms, though it can be serious in infants and older adults, according to the CDC.

As of Sept. 4, RSV tests in Wisconsin had nearly a 26% test-positivity rate, according to the state's weekly respiratory report. The state wrote on that report: "There has been a significant increase in pediatric RSV hospitalizations statewide."

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