With flu season coming up and some cases already in Tyler, officials are urging residents to be especially vigilant.
First, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states the main difference between COVID-19 and the flu is what causes the infection. COVID-19 is caused by infection with the new coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, and the flu is caused by infection with influenza viruses. There are many types of flu, but flu A and B viruses are responsible for seasonal flu.
UT Health East Texas Division Chief Medical Officer Dr. Tom Cummins said getting both immunizations, together or separately, is highly recommended.
“If people haven’t received their COVID vaccine yet, it is perfectly safe and acceptable to get both at the same time. There is no indication, no reason not to take them both at once,” he said. “There was a time when we said wait a couple of weeks, but there is no time limit now.”
He urges it is still necessary to get the flu vaccine after receiving a COVID-19 vaccine.
“It’s more necessary than ever. The fear is that people will present (a diagnosis) with both, and that could be devastating both to the hospitals and to the patient,” he said.
Cummins confirmed it is possible to get the flu and COVID-19 at the same time, but that there’s no way to tell the difference between the two.
“Flu and COVID symptoms are so similar; body aches, fever, congestion. The only thing that’s notable for COVID that doesn’t cross over to the flu is the loss of taste and smell, and with the Delta variant, we’re seeing even less of that happening now, so there’s really no good way for anyone, a physician or a layperson, to on the surface say, ‘This is just a flu or this is COVID’ without testing. The symptoms are too similar,” he said.
Some physicians said this year’s upcoming flu season could result in a twin pandemic. Cummins confirmed the possibility and said it should be “alarming.”
“It certainly alarms those of us who run hospitals, because the potential numbers of having large numbers of flu patients, and or with COVID at the same time, it could overwhelm us again. We did not see that last time in part because people did a much better job of masking out in public,” Cummins said. “What can the public do to prevent that? Get the COVID vaccine. Get the flu vaccine. And when you’re out in public or in larger meetings, etc., with groups, wear your mask.”
Cummins said UT Health employees have started to see their first flu cases of the season and encouraged vaccinations in both adults, and in children, once approved.
Smith County Public Health Authority Paul McGaha, who is an associate professor and chair of the Department of Community Health at the Health Science Center at UT Tyler, shared with Tyler City Council a COVID-19 update Wednesday, where he let the council know Pfizer recently announced their vaccine to be safe and highly effective in young children aged 5 to 11 years of age.
“Children are constituting a larger percentage of cases. Now about one in five cases, one in four cases by some data, so that would be a good thing to be able to immunize those young children,” McGaha said to the council.
Cummins’ experience is similar.
“What we’re seeing from our testing results is large numbers of children in that age range testing positive for COVID, which then helps perpetuate the ongoing pandemic by giving it to their family members, caregivers, teachers, etcetera,” Cummins said.
McGaha said that if the data supporting the vaccine for children is approved by the Food and Drug Administration and CDC, COVID-19 vaccines will be available for children as soon as the end of September.
“It’s safe to take both vaccines at the same time and I highly recommend that people get vaccinated for both,” Cummins said.
If the entire community is vaccinated against COVID-19 and the flu, Cummins said the area could see a significant decrease in the likelihood of getting either the flu or COVID-19, accompanied by a significant drop in hospitalizations for those kinds of illnesses.
He said COVID-19-related hospitalizations are currently putting pressure on hospitals’ ability to take care of non-COVID-19 patients.
Though breakthrough cases among those fully vaccinated against COVID-19 are still happening at small numbers, the same is possible with the flu vaccine.
“There’s always been a chance of getting the flu after getting the flu vaccine, I talk about that with our new hires every other week. That varies from year-to-year. Some years, the flu vaccine is very accurate and very protective from getting the flu. The flu vaccine is different every year, and it’s based on a predicted mutation coming through, and sometimes that doesn’t work. That’s why people still get the flu with the flu vaccine,” Cummins said.
“What the real benefit now of the vaccine is it decreases the severity of your symptoms and you’re much, much less likely to be hospitalized and much, much less likely to end up in the ICU on life support or even dying,” he said.
If someone experiences a breakthrough case, Cummins said that typically, the symptoms are milder. There would be less shortness of breath, less pneumonia and it is more like a bad case of the flu or a severe head cold.
As far as side effects for both the COVID-19 vaccine and the flu shot, there is data to compare which vaccine causes the most side effects.
Though flu season has already arrived in Tyler, Cummins said hospital staff continue to see a high number of very ill COVID-19 patients, some who have eventually been transitioned into end of life care.
“We have seen over the last several weeks a high number of deaths have people have sort of come to the unfortunate part of their care where we’re no longer able to help them,” he said.
Cummins said the UT Health system has been seeing eight to 10 deaths a day for several weeks.