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Flu shots urged to avoid 'twindemic' during COVID-19 pandemic

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Conway and others

Dr. James Conway, right, medical director of UW Health's immunization program, urged people to get flu shots this fall during a press conference Monday at the Alliant Energy Center. “More than ever, it’s really important for families to get immunized against the flu," Conway said.

Health officials are urging people to get flu shots in September or October this year to help prevent a large flu outbreak that amid the COVID-19 pandemic could overwhelm hospitals.

“We’re terrified of the possibility of a ‘twindemic,’” said Dr. James Conway, medical director of UW Health’s immunization program. “If we did get a particularly bad flu season and COVID-19 continues to have these surges, both the health systems and the communities would really be in great stress.”

Conway and others said Monday the reminder to get the annual flu vaccine is more important than usual this year as COVID-19 activity continues to be high in Wisconsin and around the country.

Mask-wearing, physical distancing, hand-washing and staying home as much as possible can help prevent both diseases, which have many of the same symptoms. But with flu, another tool is available.

“There’s no vaccine for COVID-19, but we do have a safe, effective, proven vaccine for influenza,” said Dr. Suzy Gomez-Goldman, a family medicine specialist at UnityPoint Health-Meriter.

The United States has had more than 5.7 million confirmed COVID-19 cases this year and about 177,000 deaths, with officials saying the actual numbers could be considerably greater.

Influenza typically causes 9 million to 45 million illnesses each year and up to 61,000 deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The annual flu shot is normally 20% to 60% effective in preventing flu outright, but even when it’s not a perfect match it can reduce the severity of the disease, health officials say.

“It will also mitigate some of the symptoms anyway, so you’ll have a milder case of the flu,” said Dr. David Ottenbaker, regional vice president for primary care services at SSM Health.

Sarah Hughes

Sarah Hughes, immunization coordinator for Public Health Madison and Dane County, said drive-thru flu shots will be available for people on BadgerCare and without health insurance in early October at the Alliant Energy Center. Those with insurance can get shots at their medical clinics or pharmacies. 

Influenza typically picks up in November or December and peaks in January or February, while continuing to circulate until spring. Flu activity has been relatively mild this summer in the Southern Hemisphere, which could mean a mild season this winter in the U.S. But the last two flu seasons in the U.S. were heavier than normal — until shutdowns in March spurred by COVID-19 dampened last season’s flu activity.

The CDC says everyone 6 months and older should get a flu shot or the nasal spray vaccine.

Flu vaccine is expected to be plentiful this year, with manufacturers providing close to 200 million doses, up from a record 175 million last year.

Workplaces may not offer flu shots as much as normal this year, and employees working from home may not seek them that way. Pharmacies and doctors’ offices are expected to vaccinate a greater share of people, with Madison-area clinics asking patients to schedule appointments in advance for shots starting early next month.

People on BadgerCare or without insurance can get flu shots at a drive-thru clinic expected to open in early October at the Alliant Energy Center, said Sarah Hughes, immunization coordinator for Public Health Madison and Dane County.

Hughes noted that Black and Latino people have had disproportionate rates of COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths. Other groups are also at greater risk, including front-line workers, the elderly and people with underlying medication conditions. Getting flu shots can help them by reducing the amount of disease going around, she said.

“We’re especially concerned about how this could impact folks in our community who are already disproportionately affected by COVID-19,” she said.

UW access

UW-Madison will provide flu shots through scheduled clinics Sept. 8 to Oct. 10 at Nielsen Tennis Stadium and the new Nicholas Recreation Center, said Jake Baggott, executive director of University Health Services.

The goal is to exceed last year’s campus record of 16,000 flu shots dispensed, Baggott said.

Nationwide, about 40% of people typically get flu shots each year. The goal this year is more than 50%, Conway said.

Similar symptoms

COVID-19 can cause loss of taste or smell, which typically doesn’t happen with flu. People usually get sick from COVID-19 about five days after infection, longer than with flu.

But the main symptoms for both diseases are the same: fever, cough, headaches and muscle aches.

“Most years, that’s the definition of the flu. Unfortunately, this year that’s the definition of the flu or COVID-19,” Conway said. “If we can take most of the flu people out of that mix, I think that we’ll be in much better shape.”