Influenza, RSV and COVID-19: what to expect this fall and winter

Posted at 8:33 PM, Sep 21, 2020
and last updated 2020-09-22 00:24:29-04

CLEVELAND — Medical experts are warning that this flu season could be more complicated than usual with COVID-19 in the mix.

Flu activity in the Southern hemisphere is reportedly down, and experts believe that’s due in part to COVID protocols like masking and social distancing, as well as shutdowns.

However, doctors in Northeast Ohio say it’s tough to predict whether we’ll see lower flu activity than usual here. With COVID-19, the flu, and RSV, which is a common virus in children, all in the mix, doctors are continuing to emphasize the importance of as many people as possible getting an influenza vaccine.

People in the public have differing views of the flu shot.

“It prevents you from getting the flu, and if you do get it, it doesn’t do you as bad,” said Carrie Smith-Aiken, who said she definitely will get the flu shot.

Smith-Aiken said that especially in her age group, people need to be careful.

“The flu and COVID symptoms overlap, so it’s going to be very difficult for us this year,” Smith-Aiken said.

But not everyone feels the same way. Scott Beattie, a Fairview Park resident, said he hasn’t gotten one in decades.

“Too many people get sick on it,” Beattie said, adding that he chooses natural remedies such as zinc and echinacea rather than the flu shot.

However, doctors emphasize that the flu shot is a killed vaccine, meaning that if you get sick afterward, your symptoms are not the flu but rather something else.

“Flu vaccines are very, very safe,” said Dr. Camille Sabella, director of the Center for Pediatric Diseases at Cleveland Clinic Children’s. “They may result in a little bit of arm pain, a little local tenderness, but they don't cause the flu.”

As for the possibility of a less-active flu season, Sabella said that we shouldn’t let our guard down.

“We don't want to presume that this is going to be a light flu season and then we let our guard down, and then we get hit hard. So we certainly don't want that to happen,” Sabella said.

He added, “We don't want to look back and say, ‘Oh, my gosh, we really should have been more prepared for flu.”

He noted that, especially in children, COVID-19, the flu, and RSV all have very similar symptoms.

“Fevers, respiratory symptoms, respiratory distress, cough,” Sabella said. “And it's really going to be difficult to sort out among the different viruses which one is causing a particular illness in a particular child.”

Doctors also warn against misinformation circulating about vaccines, some of which say a vaccine for the flu lowers your immunity and ability to fight COVID-19.

“Vaccines do not lower your immunity. They increase your immunity,” Dr. Amy Edwards, pediatric infectious disease specialist at University Hospitals, said.

Edwards said if anything, the flu virus itself could lower your immunity.

“If you happen to get bone marrow suppression as a side effect from influenza, you could end up lowering your immunity to other things, even like the common cold and things like that,” Edwards said.

She said that while vaccines protect the person who gets them, they also help protect people who cannot get them for medical reasons or those for whom they aren’t effective due to medical conditions.

“It's our job as healthy Americans to protect the vulnerable among us. So this year, please, please, this is the year to get your flu shot,” Edwards said.

The timing of your flu shot is important, too. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease specialist, said he plans to get his flu shot in mid- to late October since it’s possible getting it too early could result in some of your immunity wearing off prior to the end of flu season.

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