If there’s any indication of what flu season will be like during the pandemic take note: CVS has ordered double flu vaccinations than last year, about 18 million.
South Florida’s pharmacists and doctors are encouraging vaccination earlier this year, pushing for September and October rather than November or later.
“We are expecting an active flu season, with the possibility that some people could get the flu and COVID-19 at the same time,” said Paula Eckardt, medical director of the infectious disease program at Memorial Healthcare System. “This year we want people to get vaccinated as soon as possible.”
Last flu season hit Floridians hard and early, with doctors sending people to the hospital with complications such as pneumonia. The 2020-2021 season’s flu vaccines were updated from last year’s to better match viruses expected to be circulating in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Here is what you need to know about the flu season during the new coronavirus pandemic.
Clinics want you to make an appointment
If you’re going to get a flu shot, expect to wear a face mask and have your temperature taken. Anyone giving you the vaccine will also wear a mask and possibly a face shield, too.
CVS says customers can make an appointment online for their flu shot and receive text messages when the pharmacist is ready. “When you get to the counter, we are ready to vaccinate. This year it’s all about limiting in-person contacts,” said Ahmed Velez, Regional Director of CVS Health.
If you do have fever, cough or other symptoms, CVS Minute Clinic will do a flu test inside the store and a COVID-19 test at the drive-thru. Some physicians’ offices will do both tests at the same time.
Because of COVID-19, some settings that usually provide flu vaccine, like workplaces, may not offer vaccinations this year because of the challenges with maintaining social distancing. Publix pharmacies will be giving flu shots this year and offering the $10 gift card, no appointment needed.
Some Florida counties are giving free flu shots to the uninsured. You can use VaccineFinder.org to find where flu vaccines are available near you.
Wearing a mask and social distancing will help, but not enough
You wipe the shopping cart before you touch it, wear a mask in public, and wash your hands at least a dozen times a day. Those measures to avoid the coronavirus will help you ward off the flu too, but they are not foolproof.
”The precautions for coronavirus will help curb the spread of influenza, but not everyone social distances, wears a mask and washes their hands frequently. Even those who are careful will still get together with friends and family and become susceptible,” Dr. Eckardt said. “You cannot guarantee everyone is following the same rules.”
Some influenza symptoms are similar to COVID-19, some are not
Both the flu and COVID-19 spread mainly by droplets made when people cough, sneeze, or talk. Because some symptoms are similar, testing will be the only way to confirm a diagnosis. Fever, cough, sore throat and body aches are symptoms of both.
Unique symptoms with COVID-19 are loss of taste or smell and shortness of breath.
Aventura cardiologist Dr. Leonard Pianko said it is possible to have both the flu and the new coronavirus at the same time. “This is different than any other flu season because you could be hit by a double whammy,” Pianko said.
“This is when having the flu vaccine makes a difference,” he said. “You don’t want to have two viruses at the same time.”
Pianko said there are two types of risks from influenza — the risk to your health individually and societal risks. “Even if your risk for getting seriously ill from the flu is low, getting vaccinated will help you prevent giving the virus to others more at risk and help preserve hospital resources, he said.
A flu vaccine will not prevent COVID-19
Getting a flu vaccine will not protect you against COVID-19. It is not 100% effective against the flu either.
“You can still get the flu, but it does cut your chances,” Pianko said.
This year’s annual flu shot will offer protection against three or four of the influenza viruses expected to be in circulation this season. A high-dose flu vaccine as well as an additional vaccine also will be available for adults age 65 and older.
Pianko said the flu vaccine could reduce symptoms that might be confused with those caused by COVID-19. There is not a vaccine for COVID-19 at this time, but there are trials underway.
When does flu season start and end
The timing of flu is difficult to predict and usually varies in different parts of the country and from season to season, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
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After you get vaccinated, it takes about two weeks for antibodies to develop in the body and provide protection against influenza virus infection, said Dr. Amy Lynn Safaty, pharmacy manager with CVS Health in Orlando. “That’s why it’s best to get vaccinated before viruses start to spread in your community,” she said. “Now is the perfect time before you get exposed.”
Safaty said she started giving out flu shots in Orlando two weeks ago.
Telehealth will play a role this year
More Americans have turned to telehealth for healthcare during the country’s coronavirus pandemic. Now, health providers are gearing up to handle medical visits for respiratory illnesses that could be either the flu or COVID-19. Health systems like Baptist Health South Florida offer an app that lets you see a doctor from any mobile device or computer 24/7.
Doctors say telehealth will be critical this year to minimizing the number of contagious patients in waiting rooms, particularly during a pandemic.