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As flu season approaches, local physicians are encouraging patients to get vaccinated to prevent hospitalizations and severe cases of flu interacting with COVID-19.
Influenza and COVID-19 are both respiratory illnesses, so many of the precautions used to prevent the spread of COVID-19, such as wearing a mask and social distancing, can prevent the spread of both illnesses, experts say.
“Flu is predominantly spread through droplets and is a respiratory illness like COVID,” said Dr. Monica Newton, a family medicine physician with Northeast Georgia Physicians Group. “We have seen a slight decrease in other respiratory illnesses, such as strep, by following the precautions we’ve done with COVID.”
But while taking those steps can prevent the spread of flu, people six months and older should still get their flu shots every year, Newton said.
“The possibility of having less flu transmission by practicing social distancing, washing hands and wearing a mask is possible, but again, we have to think about how COVID has still eluded us despite our best efforts,” Newton said. “We still want people to make sure they get vaccinated for the flu and not just think wearing a mask is going to protect them from getting the flu.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that people get a flu shot by the end of October, and “there’s no time like the present,” Newton said.
Dr. Andrew Reisman, a family medicine physician with the Longstreet Clinic and president of the Medical Association of Georgia, said he is also encouraging his patients to get vaccinated.
Both COVID-19 and flu can cause pneumonia and inflammation, and having both at once could severely harm the body’s immune system, he said.
“When COVID affects people, the worst is generally from a respiratory standpoint,” Reisman said.
Controlling flu can also help with efforts to combat COVID-19, Reisman said.
“We know we have a handle on flu and generally, we can control it extremely well,” he said. “We don’t have any handle on COVID-19.”
The COVID-19 pandemic arrived toward the end of last year’s flu season, and Reisman said efforts to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus cut the most recent flu season short.
“Where normally we see it all the way up until about early June, it was pretty much done with by the first week in April because everybody was isolating and masking up and out of work and staying away from each other,” he said. “My hopes are that we have a little less flu (this year), at least in people that are doing the right things.”
Newton added that even if someone gets the flu after getting vaccinated, they are less likely to have a severe case that would lead to hospitalization.
From August 2019 through July 2020, Northeast Georgia Medical Center hospitals in Gainesville, Braselton, Dahlonega and Winder saw a total of 234 hospitalizations due to the flu, with 230 of those occurring between November and March, Newton said.
The hospitals saw more than 1,700 additional emergency visits for the flu that did not result in hospitalization, with most of those visits occurring between November and March, she said.
Reisman said people should continue precautions such as wearing a mask, proper hand hygiene and social distancing to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and the flu.
“If you don’t care about your own health, care about the health of others, because if you catch it, even if you’re not ill, you can give it to a loved one or someone else that could be much more vulnerable,” he said. “As a kind person in your community, you should do whatever you can to protect yourself and protect others.”
Longstreet Clinic locations, as well as Northeast Georgia Physicians Group primary care locations, are offering the flu vaccine, as are several pharmacy chains, such as CVS and Walgreens.
And some local pharmacies will also offer vaccines.
Scottie Barton, owner of Riverside Pharmacy on Green Street in Gainesville, said Thursday, Sept. 3 the pharmacy was due to receive doses within the next few days.
David Stanley, owner of McElveen’s Pharmacy on Thompson Bridge Road, said Thursday McElveen’s had just received its first shipments of the vaccine.
Samir Shah, owner of Citizens Pharmacy on Atlanta Highway in Flowery Branch, said Friday the pharmacy had also received some doses of the vaccine.
To help find a vaccination location near you, the CDC promotes VaccineFinder, a vaccine locator tool, on its website.