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Military Health System encourages influenza vaccination for 2020

Image of Military personnel giving patient a flu vaccine in her left arm. Navy Hospital Corpsman 3rd Class Ilandra O’Doherty of Naval Hospital Bremerton (NHB) administered the influenza vaccination during the start of the command's annual shot exercise (SHOTEX). The seasonal influenza vaccine immunization program at NHB is designed to protect Sailors and Marines, mission-essential healthcare personnel, and eligible beneficiaries. (Photo by Douglas H Stutz, NHB/NMRTC Bremerton.)

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Military Health System continues to provide annual influenza vaccination to all in need.

In conjunction with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, MHS leadership and public health emergency officers (PHEO) from all service branches stress the need for getting a flu shot, especially during the ongoing pandemic outbreak.

“It’s important to take care of the one – influenza – before we have a vaccine to effectively take care of the other – COVID-19,” stressed Navy Cmdr. Robert Uniszkiewicz, Naval Hospital Bremerton (NHB) COVID-19 lead and PHEO.

CDC and MHS experts have long been aware that the start of the annual cold and flu season, along with the continued need to stop the spread of COVID-19, presents an overlapping public health concern.

There are also similarities and differences in symptoms between COVID-19 and influenza. Both are contagious respiratory illnesses. While COVID-19 is caused by infection with the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, the season flu is caused by infection with influenza viruses. 

The CDC notes that COVID-19 seems to spread more easily than flu and causes more serious illnesses in some people, particularly the elderly with underlying health issues. It can also take longer before people show symptoms and they can be contagious for longer. 

A crucial difference in the two illnesses is that there’s readily available vaccine to protect against flu. Until the vaccine to prevent COVID-19 is generally available in the coming months, the best way to prevent infection is to avoid being exposed to the coronavirus which causes COVID-19 disease. 

Because some of the symptoms of flu and COVID-19 are similar, it may be hard to tell the difference between them based on symptoms alone. 

Similarities: Both COVID-19 and flu can have varying degrees of signs and symptoms, ranging from no symptoms (asymptomatic) to severe symptoms. Common symptoms that COVID-19 and flu share include:

  • Fever or feeling feverish/chills
  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
  • Fatigue (tiredness)
  • Sore throat
  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Muscle pain or body aches
  • Headache
  • Some people may have vomiting and diarrhea, though this is more common in children than adults
  • Differences: Those stricken with COVID-19 have noted a lapse or loss of taste and smell. 

Another difference is that if a person has COVID-19, it could take them longer to develop symptoms than if they had flu. Typically, a person develops symptoms five days after being infected, but symptoms can appear as early as two days after infection or as late as 14 days after infection, and the time range can vary. With the flu, a person typically develops symptoms anywhere from one to four days after infection.

There’s also similarities and differences how both viruses spread. 

Both COVID-19 and flu can spread from person-to-person, between people who are in close contact with one another (six feet and less). Both are spread mainly by droplets made when people with either COVID-19 or flu cough, sneeze, or talk. These droplets can land in the mouths or noses of people who are nearby or possibly be inhaled into the lungs.

It may be possible that a person can get infected by physical human contact – such as shaking hands–or by touching a surface or object that has virus on it and then touching their mouth, nose, or eyes.

Both viruses can be spread to others by people before they begin showing symptoms, or if they have only have mild symptoms or even if they never developed symptoms (asymptomatic).

The differences are that while COVID-19 and flu viruses are thought to spread in similar ways, COVID-19 is more contagious among certain populations and age groups than flu. The virus that causes COVID-19 can quickly and easily spread to a lot of people and result in continuous spreading among people as time progresses.

Both COVID-19 and flu can result in complications, including pneumonia, respiratory failure and acute respiratory distress syndrome (i.e. fluid in lungs).

According to Dr. Dan Frederick, NHB Population Health officer, immunization remains the primary method of reducing seasonal influenza illness and its complications. The seasonal influenza vaccine not only helps protect vaccinated individuals, but also helps protect entire communities by preventing and reducing the spread of the disease.

“The efficacy of the seasonal influenza in preventing infection varies by year,” explained Army Lt. Col. Elizabeth Markelz, Infectious Disease Service chief at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas. “What remains constant is the significant impact the influenza vaccine has on reducing hospitalizations, Intensive Care unit admissions and death.”

“Getting the flu shot helps protect someone once the flu season starts in their community,” Frederick explained. “The vaccination can reduce flu illnesses, doctors' visits, and missed work and school due to the illness.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, influenza vaccination prevented an estimated 58,000 flu related hospitalizations during the 2018-2019 flu season, added Markelz. “In a study using data from the U.S. Influenza Vaccines Effectiveness Network (Flu VE), the flu vaccine prevented an estimated 7.1 million illnesses, 3.7 million medical visits, 109,000 hospitalization and 8000 deaths during the 2017-2018 flu season.”

Frederick also emphasized that just as it is important for military personnel who live and work in close quarters to receive the vaccine, it is also strongly advised for school-aged children, even if their school year has been altered during the pandemic.

“Influenza is not the common cold. It can be a life-threatening disease that especially can put specific groups in jeopardy,” explained Frederick. “While certainly people with respiratory conditions, such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), are at increased risk, those over 65, young children, and pregnant women would be at the top of my list.”

The MHS seasonal influenza vaccine immunization program is designed to protect sailors and marines, mission-essential healthcare personnel, and eligible beneficiaries.

Annual influenza vaccinations are required for all active duty military personnel, selected Reserves and healthcare workers. 

Some MTFs experienced delays in final influenza vaccine shipments due late November, early December. Those doses are now out for delivery. However, this should not delay immunizing our service members, front-line healthcare workers and other beneficiaries. Community resources are available through TRICARE to provide timely immunizations.

“If you are an active duty service member or a healthcare worker, and plan to get your flu shot from somewhere other than a MTF, then be sure to check with your supervisor to identify the specific immunization information required to accurately track your immunization status,” advised Markelz. 

“It’s never too late to get your flu shot,” reiterated Army Lt. Col. Christopher Ellison, DHA-Immunization Healthcare Division’s deputy director of operations. “According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, vaccination can still be beneficial as long as flu viruses are circulating. If you have not been vaccinated by the end of November, the vaccine can still offer protection if received in December or later.” 

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