The Flu & COVID: 4 Questions Answered

Canada is in the midst of its second wave of COVID-19. There have been thousands of new cases of COVID announced, as well as more deaths.

Concurrently, seasonal influenza or “flu” affects millions of Canadians every year. Flu season is usually defined as being in the fall and winter, peaking between December and February.

Most people recover from the flu within around 10 days. Nevertheless, some segments of the population are at risk of more serious complications – this includes seniors, infants, and those with underlying health conditions (asthma, diabetes, etc.).

As we approach flu season, and we continue to bear the brunt of the COVID-19 pandemic, here are four big questions answered.

Why is this year different?

Though seasonal influenza is a threat every year, this year healthcare providers have to contend with both the flu and COVID-19 in what is being dubbed a “twindemic”.

Interviewed in an article for University of California San Francisco, infection disease expert Charles Chiu said “the worry is that with the onset of the flu season, you’re going to get peaks of flu and COVID-19 cases at the same time. Even with a mild flu season, the convergence with a COVID surge could very rapidly overwhelm our hospital system.”

Indeed, though flu is a largely known and understood disease with a working vaccine, there is already such a burden on hospitals and healthcare providers that the added risk of the flu will severely strain the healthcare system. Because although the flu is a known entity, as we stated before it affects millions of Canadians every year. According to Statistics Canada, there are around 12,200 flu-related hospitalizations every year, and around 3,500 deaths annually. As of Nov. 1 there have been 237k positive cases of COVID in Canada, and 10,179 people have died.

What are the differences between COVID-19 and seasonal influenza?

When the pandemic started to make headlines in January, Canada was already in the middle of flu season. One of the scariest and most confusing aspects of the start of the pandemic was that though we didn’t know much about the novel coronavirus, the symptoms seemed very similar to those of the flu. It seemed hard to tell which was which.

According to the article referenced above, the infection fatality rate of the flu is less than 0.1%, whilst that of COVID is between 0.5 and 1%. Thus, COVID is the more deadly of the two. This is especially worrying as there is currently no vaccine for COVID. Infection fatality rate is one of the big differences between the two viruses.

The U.S. Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that flu symptoms include: fever and/or chills, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, muscles or body aches, headaches, fatigue and vomiting and diarrhea in some people. COVID-19 shares many of these symptoms. The main symptoms of COVID are fever, dry cough, and tiredness. Other symptoms can include aches and pains, sore throat, diarrhea, headache, conjunctivitis, loss of taste, and smell. Serious symptoms include difficulty breathing or shortness of breath, chest pain or pressure, and loss of speech or movement.

COVID-19 and seasonal influenza are also spread in the same manner: through tiny droplets made when people with the virus cough, sneeze, or talk.

Should I get a flu shot?

The general consensus is …yes. And you need to get it done every year. The Public Health Agency of Canada recommends that everyone six months or older get the vaccine. It says that the vaccine can help protect you if you are exposed to the virus, protect others and, this year, reduce additional strain placed on the Canadian healthcare system by COVID-19.

According to Canadian Community Health Surveys (CCHS), nearly one third (31%) of Canadians received a flu shot in 2013 – 2014 within 12 months of being surveyed. 64% of seniors (aged 65 and up) got a flu vaccination, 32% of those aged 45 – 64 got a vaccination and 19% of those aged 12 – 44 got a flu shot.

CCHS also found that of those who didn’t get flu shots, 56% said that they felt it was “unnecessary” and 26% “didn’t get round to it.” Flu vaccination rates increased after the H1N1 pandemic in 2009 – 2010. Between 2003 and 2013 – 2014, flu vaccination rates increased in all Canadian provinces, except Ontario where rates went down (from 38% to 34%).

Flu shots are safe and effective*, and protect against influenza A(H1N1), influenza A(H3N2) and influenza B. It is necessary to keep in mind that influenza shots do not protect against COVID-19, they are caused by different viruses.

*According to the CDC, people who should not get the flu shot are children under six months, people with severe, life-threatening allergies to the flu vaccine components (this can include gelatin, antibiotics, and even eggs), and potentially those who have suffered from Guillain-Barre Syndrome (GBS). Please talk to your healthcare provider before getting a shot.

Should I wear a mask and/or other PPE?

Mask wearing has become synonymous with COVID and the current pandemic. Nevertheless, in certain countries around the world such as South Korea or Japan, mask wearing is de rigueur with any type of viral infection – this includes the flu.

Our attitudes are changing, and we are becoming more and more aware of basic prevention measures that not only help in curbing the spread of COVID-19, but in the long-term could affect how we handle any viral infections moving forward. Given that COVID and the flu have the same method of transmission, it stands to reason that wearing a mask to avoid spreading the flu would be a good idea.

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