Despite the low incidence of flu last influenza season, health officials are growing increasingly worried about the upcoming season given the current COVID-19 pandemic.
Last year, prevention measures such as masking and social distancing resulted in a lower number of flu cases across the country, Gillian Ice, special assistant to the president for public health operations, said.
James Gaskell, health commissioner at the Athens City-County Health Department, additionally said there was an increased concern last year about a combination of the flu and COVID-19, leading more individuals to get vaccinated against the flu and resulting in lower incidence.
“We worry about both diseases occurring at the same time — COVID-19 and influenza,” Gaskell said. “We are very concerned that … if people that happened to have influenza get coronavirus, that's not a very good combination.”
A large outbreak of flu cases, in addition to COVID-19 cases, is worrisome for health officials, both in Athens and at Ohio University. Ice said she is concerned with the strain the flu and COVID-19 have the potential to put on Athens health systems.
“We're all sort of holding our breath on the flu season, actually, because, while the cases are coming down, the hospitalizations continue to go up,” Ice said.
According to a university news release, the flu may result in severe respiratory illness and is a contagious disease. In some cases, the flu can lead to hospitalization and potentially death.
“If (COVID-19) cases remain high, then hospitalization will remain high and that means our hospital systems are going to be burdened,” Ice said. “Flu season on top of that is really concerning, because we always know a certain percentage of people with flu end up in the hospital and currently, right now, there's really no hospital beds, there’s very limited hospital beds locally and around the state.”
While there is fear of overwhelming local hospital systems, health officials maintain that vaccination against both COVID-19 and influenza is the best way someone can protect themselves this winter season.
“This year — even more than ever — it’s important,” Jane Balbo, a family physician in the primary care clinic of OhioHealth Campus Care, said in the release. “Right now our health care systems are stressed by people who are ill with COVID and the more people who have flu vaccines the more likely we are to not have people becoming very ill with influenza, which means we’re less likely to have those people present for medical treatment in our emergency rooms, urgent cares and hospitals — which are quite overrun right now.”
Gaskell said there are no additional health risks of getting the COVID-19 and flu vaccinations around the same time for those who are not yet vaccinated. Both vaccines will produce antibodies no matter when one gets the vaccines, he said.
However, Gaskell said those who receive their second dose of the COVID-19 vaccination and the flu vaccine around the same time may feel unwell for a couple days after receiving the vaccines, though individuals should not face serious reactions or hospitalization by getting both doses at the same time.
“It's an immunological reaction which causes a sort of generalized inflammation,” Gaskell said. “Your immune system responds to these antigens and you have an immune response and you just don't feel well for a couple of days”
The health department is hosting flu vaccination clinics Mondays and Wednesdays. The department also held a drive-thru clinic Oct. 11. In 2020, the department had between about 400 and 500 vaccinations at a similar drive-thru event.
OhioHealth Campus Care is also offering flu vaccination clinics by appointment Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. and the cost for the vaccine will be billed to students’ health insurance.
Students can also schedule a free flu shot through CVS, located at 32 S. Court St.