ELKHART — As the flu season emerges, local health officials are urging people to get vaccinated to avoid the threat of a possible “twindemic,” a large outbreak of flu cases coinciding with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Many of the symptoms for influenza and COVID-19 are similar. Symptoms shared by both contagious respiratory diseases include fever, cough, muscle aches and chills, according to health experts.
Elkhart County’s top health official and others on Monday said getting the annual flu vaccine is more important than usual this year as COVID-19 activity continues to be prevalent locally and around the country.
“We are encouraging everyone to get the flu vaccine in the next few weeks,” said Dr. Lydia Mertz, the county’s health officer. “Anyone who’s over six months old and doesn’t have a contraindication of getting it should get vaccinated.”
Although the symptoms are similar, Mertz said there are rapid flu tests to determine right away if those with symptoms have influenza. Regardless of the results, she said, people should still have a COVID test because anyone can still get both flu and COVID.
“So if you’ve got a fever, cough or muscle aches, you should be tested for both,” Mertz said.
At Goshen Health, Dr. Dan Nafziger, chief medical officer and infectious disease specialist, said the hospital is no longer seeing declines in the percentage of positive cases for COVID-19 and the number of people hospitalized is beginning to increase again.
To date, since March, the hospital has performed a total of 14,307 tests. Of that number, 12,359 tested negative with 1,736 people testing positive (overall positivity rate of 12.3 percent).
“We want our children to be able to continue to attend school, so as the weather gets colder and we spend more time indoors, it will continue to be important to avoid large gatherings and to wear masks when you are around other people,” Nafziger said.
“I highly recommend getting a flu shot,” he said. “For older people and people with health conditions, the flu is more serious than for a normally healthy person. This year getting flu symptoms may land you in isolation for 10 days, which won’t be pleasant for anyone.”
In addition to the flu shot, mask-wearing, physical distancing, hand-washing and staying home as much as possible can help prevent both diseases, health experts said.
“We don’t need anything else on top of COVID,” Mertz said.
The peak for flu season in the county is typically at the end of December or in January, said Mertz, noting that it could be different this year.
A notable difference this year, Mertz said, is that many more people are inquiring about the flu vaccine compared to previous years. Some providers are still waiting for their flu vaccine shipments, while others already have them.
“Once we know that all providers have the vaccine, we’ll be pushing that information out immediately,” she said. “We want everyone to be vaccinated before the end of October.”
Although the flu is dangerous and has a high death rate associated with it every year, Mertz said, people who contract the coronavirus face a far greater risk of death. And, for those who contract both, the risk of death is even greater.
“It’s very important to get your flu vaccine every year, but especially this year with COVID,” Mertz said. “If you get sick and you have both flu and COVID, it’s extremely dangerous and the rate of mortality is very high. So, we want everyone to be protected as much as possible.”