Concerns voiced by experts late in 2020 about a “twindemic” seemed to have dissipated as seasonal influenza activity in the United States remains lower than usual. This time last year, close to 100 times as many flu cases had been identified from nearly the same number of tests.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), only .2 percent of laboratory samples tested in the U.S. for the flu have come up positive. There also are reported declines in respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), a common virus that typically infects young children and causes about five percent of deaths in children under five around the world.
This is especially good news in a time when the COVID-19 (SARS-CoV-2) pandemic continues to affect the world, even as various coronavirus vaccines are slowly being distributed. These decreased numbers might be due to high flu vaccination rates along with measures such as social distancing and mask-wearing being utilized to prevent the coronavirus disease. As of Dec. 25, 2020, more than 192 million doses of flu vaccine had been distributed, the highest number in a single flu season in the U.S.
Encouraging patients to receive the seasonal flu shot is an important initiative for healthcare providers because between 3,000-49,000 Americans annually die from the flu and its complications. More patients receiving the flu vaccine also can aid in reducing the burden on hospitals and healthcare systems responsible for responding to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
The flu vaccine protects the three or four influenza viruses that research suggests may be most common during flu season. Even though it won’t protect against COVID-19, there is no evidence that getting a flu vaccination increases an individual’s risk of getting sick from COVID. Other benefits of flu vaccination include:
- Reduced risk of flu illness by between 40-60 percent among the overall population during seasons when most circulating flu viruses are well-matched to the flu vaccine.
- Prevention of illness from influenza
- Reduced risk of flu-associated hospitalization for children, working-age and older adults and individuals with chronic health conditions.
- Protection against the flu for women during and after pregnancy
- Protection for people at high risk from flu, many of whom are also at high risk for COVID-19
In addition, researchers from the University of Missouri School of Medicine recently published their study on the flu vaccine’s impact on COVID-19 pediatric patients. The team who performed the study found that children who received the seasonal flu shot were less likely to suffer symptoms from novel coronavirus infection.
Differentiating Between COVID-19 and Influenza
There are many similarities and differences between the flu and COVID-19. Although both are contagious respiratory illnesses, COVID-19 is caused by infection with a new coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2), and flu is caused by influenza viruses. Unlike the influenza virus, the symptoms of which appear within a day or two of infection, COVID-19 seems to spread more easily and cause more serious illnesses in some individuals. Both have similar symptoms, but most who contract COVID-19 deal with its symptoms for weeks rather than the day or two of suffering from the seasonal flu.
These differences are a major reason testing for both COVID-19 and influenza are important. Confirming a diagnosis not only enables providers to decide on the best course of treatment but also aids patients in knowing whether or not or how long they should follow quarantine protocols for the COVID-19.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has authorized several tests, referred to as multi-analyte panels or multiplex assays, to simultaneously check for A and B type seasonal flu viruses and SARS CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. Initially designed for use only at CDC-supported public health laboratories at state and local levels, these screening tools are now available in some hospitals in select areas of the country. For those with access to these COVID-19 tests, its availability mitigates the need for multiple tests and visits with doctors. However, the CDC recommends that individuals do not get a COVID-19 vaccine and a flu vaccine at the same time.
Many other types of flu tests are available, the most common and fastest of which is a rapid influenza diagnostic test (RIDT). Although not as accurate as other influenza tests, it detects antigens specific to the virus and provides results in approximately 10-15 minutes.
There are two kinds of viral tests for COVID-19, molecular and antigen, that can be used for diagnostic purposes. Many experts report that the swab test used to diagnose COVID-19 is highly specific and, contrary to social media disinformation, is highly unlikely to misdiagnose the flu or common cold as COVID-19. Another option, rapid point-of-care COVID-19 tests (both molecular or antigen), use a mucus sample from the nose or throat but can be analyzed at the doctor’s office or clinic where the sample is collected and results may be available in minutes.
Offering Convenient Testing
Both UW Health and the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) have unveiled new ways to promote testing and vaccination for influenza and COVID-19. UW Health is employing Epic’s MyChart solution to encourage its patients to schedule an appointment at one of the health system’s drive-thrus, walk-in clinics or pharmacies. Upon signing into MyChart, patients who receive a reminder that they haven’t yet received their flu shot this year can schedule one at one of these facilities without needing a full doctor’s visit. UW Health patients also have access to an indoor drive-thru COVID-19 testing facility that opened on December 2, 2020.
To provide mobile testing to Michigan communities at the highest risk for COVID-19, MDHHS has partnered with Wayne State University and Wayne Health. According to Wayne Health, its three mobile units move between sites, and, in addition to receiving a COVID-19 test, participants can receive flu shots, blood pressure screening, HIV testing and on-site referrals for public benefits. The vans also include cold temperature-regulated storage to distribute COVID-19 vaccines when they become available to the general public. As of February 4, 2021, the Wayne Health Mobile Unit program has completed 31,071 total COVID-19 testing encounters with an average results delivery time of 24-48 hours.
Providertech: Assisting Providers in Automating Results Delivery
At Providertech, we know that conveying timely COVID-19 test results to patients can be extremely difficult, especially with such high demand. Delays in results delivery increase the rate of infection spread, and increased testing rates exceed the current outreach capabilities of many healthcare providers. Flu testing has become less of an imperative, even though patients want to know if they’ve contracted influenza or the COVID-19.
The eTest Results Delivery capabilities of our secure and HIPAA-compliant CareCommunity messaging platform enable providers to automate and safely notify patients of flu, COVID-19 and other lab results faster by providing them with tracking status of test results and alerting them of the outcome as soon as they are signed off. This minimizes “phone tag” between patients and staff, reduces unnecessary office visits and streamlines virtual follow-up after results delivery. Providertech is securely delivering thousands of COVID results daily via text on behalf of our clients utilizing this solution. We are also now providing a respiratory panel option that includes both flu and COVID testing results along with clear education and navigation for patients to easily understand their immediate next steps.
Successful mass vaccination is critical to reducing COVID-19 morbidity and mortality. Our vaccine management program can help you effectively and efficiently vaccinate your patients while protecting their privacy. For COVID-19 vaccine communication management, CareCommunity gives you a scalable communication platform to reach your populations and deploy your strategy and requirements with our compliance safeguards and industry best practices. Plus, your staff can reduce their time on the phone by 75 percent.
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