Heading into this winter, there are many questions regarding influenza and the current novel coronavirus pandemic. Both can cause serious illness, hospitalization and death. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) anticipates significant spread of infection during the upcoming flu season. As a result, vigilance in preventing the spread of these viruses is critical.
The flu and COVID-19 are contagious respiratory illnesses caused by different viruses. COVID-19 is from the novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) and the flu is caused by infection with influenza viruses. The flu is usually contracted within one to four days after coming into contact with it. COVID-19 symptoms usually occur five days after coming into contact with the virus. Based on evidence, COVID-19 appears to be more contagious.
The flu and COVID-19 share similar symptoms. These include fever or feeling feverish/chills, coughing, shortness of breath or difficulty breathing, fatigue, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, muscle pain or body aches, and headaches. Some people may have vomiting and diarrhea, although this is more common in children than adults.
COVID-19 patients may additionally lose the ability to taste or smell, which is not a symptom exhibited by influenza patients. However, due to the variability in symptoms exhibited individually and the many common symptoms of both, testing should be done for an accurate diagnosis. The CDC has developed a single test that can detect both viruses at the same time.
People at high risk for COVID-19—such as individuals with preexisting health conditions, pregnant women and the elderly—are also at elevated risk for the flu virus. Younger children appear to be more susceptible to the flu than to COVID-19.
The CDC indicates that it is possible to be infected by both the novel coronavirus and influenza at the same time. This makes it more important than ever to get the flu vaccine. The CDC recommends that everyone above the age of 6 months receive the vaccine through January 2021.
While there are no predictions regarding the flu vaccine being in short supply, the pandemic will likely impact where and when it is available. Manufacturers of the flu vaccine anticipate a record number of doses will be given this fall and winter. Getting the vaccine sooner rather than later is advised. Individuals should check with and can safely get a flu vaccine at a doctor’s office, the health department or a local pharmacy.
According to the CDC Influenza Guidance (2020-2021), “Getting a flu vaccine will not protect against COVID-19. However, flu vaccination has many other important benefits. Flu vaccines have been shown to reduce the risk of flu illness, hospitalization and death. Getting a flu vaccine this fall will be more important than ever, not only to reduce your risk from flu but also to help conserve potentially scarce healthcare resources.”
Getting vaccinated is the first step to preventing the spread of the flu virus in the workplace. Continuing to practice social distancing and other precautions already being conducted to limit exposure to COVID-19 should continue through the fall and winter flu season.
Additionally, workers should still wear a mask or cloth face-covering when possible, regularly wash hands or use alcohol-based hand sanitizer and periodically sterilize work or common areas with some type of disinfectant. This will limit the spread of COVID-19 and influenza. Frequently touched surfaces that should be disinfected may include shared tools, machines, vehicles and other equipment, handrails, ladders, doorknobs and portable toilets.
Employers can also consider screening employees in the form of temperature checks, and making flu vaccines and periodic COVID-19 tests available to workers.
In the event that a worker or colleague becomes ill, encourage them to stay home until they are healthy and cleared of the flu virus and COVID-19. While out sick from work, they should drink plenty of fluids, eat healthy foods, avoid smoking and alcohol consumption, limit contact with known allergens and get lots of rest. Over-the-counter drugs may help, but should be used with caution based on their potential interaction with other health conditions such allergies or high blood pressure.
Finally, some experts predict the spread of the flu virus this season might be lower than previous years because of the infectious disease precautions being taken globally for COVID-19. Time will tell, but let’s hope that’s the case.