Preparing for Flu Season in the Age of COVID-19

By September 23, 2020January 7th, 2021Featured Well-being
Sick man in bed checking fever with thermometer

While it may seem like we’ve just packed away our summer clothes, preparations for the 2020-2021 influenza (flu) season are already underway. This year, the flu vaccine is especially important because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Health care professionals recommend getting the flu shot early, in September or October, since an early vaccine offers the best protection for the entire flu season. (However, if you’re unable to get the flu vaccine early, getting it later in the season is still very helpful.)

Double Trouble: COVID-19 and the Flu

COVID-19 and the flu are both contagious respiratory illnesses, but they are caused by different viruses. The flu is caused by infection with influenza viruses and COVID-19 is caused by infection with a new coronavirus (called SARS-CoV-2). Because many of the symptoms of flu and COVID-19 are similar, it may be hard to tell the difference between them based on symptoms alone. Testing may be needed to help confirm a diagnosis. It is also possible to have the flu and COVID-19 at the same time.

How COVID-19 and the flu spread

Both COVID-19 and the flu can spread from person to person, usually between people who are in close contact with one another (within about 6 feet). Both viruses are spread mainly by droplets made when people with the illness cough, sneeze, or talk. With both COVID-19 and the flu, it may be possible for a person to get infected through physical human contact (e.g. shaking hands) or by touching a surface or object that has virus particles on it and then touching his or her mouth, nose, or possibly eyes.

Decoding symptoms

COVID-19 and the flu share many common symptoms, including fever, cough, shortness of breath (difficulty breathing), fatigue (tiredness), sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, muscle pain or body aches, and headaches. Some people may also experience vomiting and/or diarrhea.

The Many Benefits of the Flu Vaccine

Although the flu vaccine will not protect against COVID-19, it does have many other important benefits. Flu vaccines have been shown to reduce the risk of flu illness, hospitalization, and death. This is especially important for people with underlying health conditions such as diabetes or high blood pressure, since they are at the highest risk of getting the flu.

Getting a flu vaccine this fall will be more important than ever, not only to reduce your own risk of flu, but also to protect those around you. The more people with immunity to the flu this year, the less chance it will have to spread through communities. Fewer people getting the flu this year will help conserve potentially scarce health care resources that may be needed to treat the COVID-19 pandemic.

Treatment Options

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved prescription antiviral drugs to treat the flu. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends that people who are hospitalized with the flu or at high risk of developing flu complications to be treated with antiviral drugs as soon as possible. Low risk people should rest and avoid contact with others. The flu vaccine remains the best way to protect against the flu.

Currently, there is no vaccine to prevent COVID-19. Vaccine developers and other researchers and manufacturers are working hard to develop a vaccine to prevent COVID-19 and get it to communities as soon as it is safe to do so.

Plan Ahead

The COVID-19 pandemic may change how and where people get a flu vaccine this year. Ask your primary care physician if he or she has a supply. IBX members are covered when they visit in-network providers, pharmacies, and retail clinics.1

1 IBX members who pay for the flu vaccine out of pocket may be reimbursed up to $50.

Dr. Ellen Riccobene

About Dr. Ellen Riccobene

Dr. Ellen Riccobene, a board-certified internist, is the IBX Medicare STARs clinical team medical director. Dr. Riccobene also serves as the medical director liaison for IBX local and national customers and conducts company medical utilization reviews. She graduated from Tulane University, summa cum laude, and received her medical degree from Georgetown University School of Medicine. She completed her residency in internal medicine at Georgetown University Hospital. Before joining Independence Blue Cross in 2008, Dr. Riccobene worked at hospitals in Washington, D.C., New Jersey, and in Philadelphia, and served as an internal medicine residency director.