Week two: Still no flu cases reported: The state Department of Public Health posted the second weekly flu update of the season on Friday and it continues to show zeroes across the board. That will change in coming weeks as flu season usually starts quietly in late September and peaks in January and February.
Healthcare experts continue to stress the extra need for flu shots this season because of the continuing coronavirus pandemic. In his weekly update on Thursday, Dr. Gary Voccio of the Northwest District office of the Georgia Department of Public Health again urged area residents to get their shots. Said Voccio:
“No flu activity yet but we are very concerned about it, though” with the holidays on the way. “Remember to get a flu shot … please get a flu shot.”
Here’s how those numbers compare to the past five flu seasons. The chart represents total deaths each season as well as hospitalizations:
- 2019-20: 94 deaths, 2,520 hospitalizations.
- 2018-19: 44 deaths, 1,582 hospitalizations.
- 2017-18: 151 deaths, 3,139 hospitalizations.
- 2016-17: 9 deaths, 1,484 hospitalizations.
- 2015-16: 7 deaths, 582 hospitalizations.
WHAT TO KNOW:
Media release: The Georgia Department of Public Health is urging all Georgians six months and older to get a flu shot this year.
“Now more than ever, influenza vaccination is critical not only to protect people from getting sick, but to reduce the burden on our healthcare system already caring for COVID-19 patients,” said Kathleen E. Toomey, M.D., M.P.H, DPH commissioner. “Even if the vaaccine doesn’t prevent illness from flu completely, it can help reduce the severity and risk of serious complications – and keep people out of the hospital during this COVID-19 pandemic.”
Influenza and COVID-19 are both contagious respiratory illnesses, but they are caused by different viruses. Flu and COVID-19 share many characteristics, including:
- Fever or feeling feverish/chills
- Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
- Sore throat
- Runny or stuffy nose
- Muscle pain or body aches and headaches
- Vomiting and diarrhea, more common in children than adults
Because some of the symptoms of flu and COVID-19 are similar, it may be hard to tell the difference between them based on symptoms alone, and testing may be needed to help confirm a diagnosis.
Both the flu and COVID-19 spread in similar ways. Droplets or smaller virus particles from a sick person can transmit the virus to other people nearby. The smallest particles may linger in the air, and another person can inhale them and become infected.
An important difference between flu and COVID-19 is there is a vaccine available to everyone to protect against flu. Every individual over the age of six months should get a flu vaccine – not just for their own protection, but to protect others around them who may be more vulnerable to the flu and its complications. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend getting an annual flu shot by the end of October. It takes about two weeks after vaccination for antibodies that protect against flu to develop in the body.
There are tried and true measures to help protect against the flu or any respiratory illness, including COVID-19:
- If you have symptoms, stay home from school or work.
- Practice social distancing by keeping 6 feet between you and others.
- Wearing a mask or face covering in public.
- Wash your hands frequently and thoroughly. Alcohol based hand sanitizers (at least 60% alcohol) are the next best thing if there is no access to soap and water.
- Cover your nose and mouth when coughing and sneezing to help prevent the spread of viruses. Use a tissue or cough or sneeze into the crook of your elbow or arm.
- Avoid touching your face as germs can get into the body through mucus membranes of the nose, mouth and eyes.
Remember, everything you do to help prevent flu will also help prevent COVID-19. If you do get sick and think you may have the flu, contact your healthcare provider right away. There are medications that can be used to treat flu but they are most effective when taken within 48 hours of the onset of flu symptoms.
Flu vaccine is widely available at public health departments, doctors’ offices, grocery stores, neighborhood clinics and pharmacies. To find a location near you click on https://vaccinefinder.org/find-vaccine.
For updates on flu or COVID-19, follow @GaDPH on Twitter and @GaDPH on Facebook. Show your flu shot! Share your flu shot photo with DPH on social media using the hashtag #Igotmine.
By Natalie Simms
As flu season begins amid the continuing COVID pandemic, local health officials are hopeful steps such as wearing face masks and social distancing — along with flu vaccinations — will keep a possible ‘twin-demic’ from putting further strain on our health system.
“We are hoping that with COVID measures in place we will not have as high a flu season as we’ve seen in the past,” says Dr. Gary Voccio, health director for Northwest Georgia Public Health District. “We typically look at flu season trends from countries in the southern hemisphere that runs before ours starts and they didn’t have a high flu season this year.”
The flu season to our south runs April to October with peak typically in August. According to a recent article in Healthline, Australia had just more than 21,000 confirmed cases of flu through Aug. 23 compared to 247,000 confirmed cases last year in same time period.
Flu season in the U.S. usually begins in October but can begin as early as September and last well into March. Peak flu season in Georgia usually occurs in late January and early February but the season itself lasts from now until the third week of May.
“The other thing we are asking folks to do is to get flu shots or vaccinations…you don’t want flu and COVID at the same time,” says Voccio. “A lot of folks are worried about getting both and overwhelming our health care centers. We certainly hope that doesn’t happen.
“If folks continue handwashing, wearing face masks, avoiding those with respiratory illness, avoiding large crowds and getting flu vaccinations…those are best ways to protect yourself.”
One big question is how will you know if you have flu or COVID because the symptoms for each are almost identical?
“They are relatively the same with cough, fever, chills, body aches and pain except for loss of smell and taste with COVID. But if you have a bad cold, most of the time, you also can’t smell or taste. You will have to be tested for both to see what you have,” says Voccio.
“The treatments are different. There are proven treatments and regimes to reduce symptoms of the flu which are very different than how we are treating COVID.”
Harbin Clinic is ramping up its prevention efforts both within its staff and to the community. Dr. Ed McBride, Harbin’s Chief Medical Officer, hopes their efforts will keep a “twin-demic” from happening in the community.
“We are focused on vaccination of our patients. We encourage all to speak with their primary care physician about getting their flu shot now. We have been asked by the CDC to distribute all flu vaccines by the end of October,” he says.
“In addition, those that are 65 and old need to get a pneumococcal vaccine. We are also ramping up conversations with patients making sure they are following preventative measure like washing hands, wearing face masks and covering coughs.”
McBride says there is concern Georgia’s flu season could be moderate or high because of the pandemic. There were 93 deaths in Georgia last season from flu, according to the Georgia Department of Public Health.
“We typically look at other areas of the globe to see how their flu season was and it was milder that usual this year. Now, those areas were doing a lot of preventative measures already because of the pandemic,” he says. “It’s probable it will also be the case here but there are varying degrees of measures that are being followed. Even in our community, we see some folks following the recommendations and some not.
“We could see a resurgence in cases like they have in Europe. We certainly don’t want to see that here. Folks need to keep doing what they normally do to keep their immune system healthy…eat healthy, get outside and exercise, get plenty of rest.”
Area hospitals have seen high numbers of COVID patients over the last two months. As of Friday, hospitals in Rome, Cartersville and Calhoun together were treated 71 coronavirus patients. That compares to two total on June 1 but is down from the peak of 113 in late July.
While they are prepared for increased capacity should this year’s flu season be rough, officials are hopeful that won’t be the case.
“A severe flu season, on top of the COVID-19 pandemic, would be a challenge for hospitals and healthcare providers but I’m hoping that masking, washing hands and social distancing will protect everyone from influenza,” says Dr. Ken Jones, executive vice president and Chief Medical Officer of Floyd Medical Center.
“As everyone knows, we increased our capacity to handle patients with COVID at Floyd. This was accomplished through a lot of hard work internally, along with the help of resources made available to us by the state of Georgia. We have ample supplies of protective equipment for our staff. We have been working hard to be as proactive and prepared as possible during this COVID pandemic and upcoming flu season.”
Redmond Regional Medical Center’s Chief Medical Officer Dr. Julie Barnes says the preparations made in March for COVID will continue to help the hospital through flu season.
“The hospital made a tremendous amount of preparations in March as there was a prediction of a tsunami of patients from COVID. We put together a plan for alternative sites and resources and we will continue with those current measures,” she says.
“The Georgia Emergency Management Association has given us 15 nurses through October, so we know we can count on them for support. We have also increased our contact nurses and will coordinate care with other hospitals and Harbin Clinic as necessary.”
Cartersville Medical Center has also been working to make sure it is fully staffed to handle any increase in patients this flu season.
“The current unknown is whether we will see more patient encounters this flu season due to public fear; co-infection; or similarities in disease signs and symptoms. Or if the current practice of social distancing and mask wearing will mitigate an influenza outbreak,” says Dr. Mark Senger, Chief Medical Officer of Cartersville Medical Center.
“Due to the unpredictability of this year’s flu season during a novel pandemic, Cartersville Medical Center has been actively hiring staff, monitoring our PPE supplies and ensuring we have adequate lab supplies for both COVID-19 and influenza testing. We implemented rigorous protocols in March due to COVID-19. We will continue to follow these protocols and any newly updated guidelines to protect both our patients and staff moving forward.”
Flu vaccinations are recommended for anyone ages 6 months and older and now is the time to get one. Local health departments in Floyd, Bartow, Gordon and Polk are giving flu vaccinations on a walk-in basis. Call your health department for hours and pricing:
- Floyd County: 706-295-6123
- Bartow County: 770-382-1920
- Gordon County: 706-624-1444
- Polk County: 770-749-2270
Harbin Clinic physicians also are giving flu shots to their patients. If you are a Harbin Clinic patient, please call your physician’s office about getting your vaccine, or check via the Harbin Connect online patient portal.
Floyd Primary Care providers and Urgent Care Centers are also offering flu shots to the public. Those will be available over the next few weeks, please call your physician to schedule or check with a Floyd Urgent Care center in Rome, Armuchee, Rockmart, Cedartown, Cartersville, Summerville or Centre, AL.
Redmond Family Care Centers located in West Rome and Dr. Pittman in East Rome, as well as both Urgent Care Centers (Shorter Avenue and Turner McCall Boulevard) are distributing flu vaccines. Redmond Regional will begin offering vaccines to all physicians and hospital staff today and offering to all in-patients on Oct. 1.
Cartersville Medical Center has received its supply of influenza vaccines and has begun offering to our staff and physicians. Cartersville Urgent Care offers flu shots at both locations (Main Street and West Avenue), as well as Rapid COVID-19 testing.