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COVID-19, Influenza provide twice the challenge to healthcare workers

Military personnel wearing a face mask while holding hand sanitizer Navy Hospital Corpsman 3rd Class Mae Larimer, assigned to Navy Medicine Readiness Training Unit Bangor helps patients and visitors at the medical clinic to daily mitigate any potential spread of the ongoing pandemic outbreak as well as seasonal influenza virus. (Photo by Douglas Stutz.)

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It’s a double whammy that public health experts across the country had indicated could happen.

The ongoing pandemic outbreak has overlapped with the annual Northern Hemisphere influenza season.

Military medical treatment facilities like Naval Hospital Bremerton/Navy Medicine Readiness and Training Command (NMRTC) Bremerton in Washington are at the fore to help eradicate the pandemic as well as prevent and protect patients from the flu.

Defense Health Agency officials had indicated in early December 2020, that Influenza-Like-Illness (ILI) does tend to peak during the winter months, which has been the case in the Pacific Northwest the last few years.

The Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommended in October, 2020, that 65% of adults and children be vaccinated against the flu because of the potential simultaneous demand on healthcare systems due to COVID-19 and the flu. In recognition of that goal, DHA established a goal to meet or exceed the 65% flu vaccination rate toward the end of December2020.

Towards that goal, NMRTC Bremerton continues to provide flu vaccinations to all eligible beneficiaries, along with following the Department of Defense distribution plan for administering the COVID-19 vaccine to all active duty and reserve components, TRICARE Prime and TRICARE Select beneficiaries, and select DOD civilians and contract personnel authorized to receive immunizations from DOD.

During NMRTC Bremerton’s 2020-2021 seasonal influenza campaign, over 2,250 flu shots were administered, including a staff pandemic influenza drill that immunized approximately 750 staff members in less than 72 hours. A weeklong clinic inoculated more than 2,000 patients, and preventive medicine personnel conducted workplace flu clinics for several tenant shore commands in the region.

Yet there are still those who have not received their flu shot, as well as those who have not voluntarily been administered the COVID-19 vaccine.

According to NMRTC Bremerton public health experts, even if someone has neglected to get their flu shot, they still have the opportunity to get the COVID-19 vaccine.

“There is not a contraindication to receiving a COVID and Influenza vaccine at the same time per DHA guidance. However, we recommend at least three days of separation between the two to ensure side effects of flu vaccine are not confused with side effects of the COVID vaccine, or vice versa,” explained Dr. Dan Frederick, NHB/NMRTC Bremerton population health officer and public health emergency officer.

Frederick noted that healthcare workers in any hospital setting are considered to be at high risk of becoming infected with influenza and passing the infection to others, a similar concern with the COVID-19 virus.

“We strongly encourage everyone to get the flu vaccine. It’s now more important than ever due to the ongoing pandemic,” said Frederick, echoing CDC concerns.

According to the CDC, COVID-19 and influenza are both contagious respiratory illnesses, albeit each caused by infection from a different virus.

Influenza viruses cause mild to severe illness, whereas COVID-19 has caused serious illness in many, resulting in more than 500,000 deaths in the U.S. alone. It can also take longer for someone to show they actually have symptoms of COVID-19.

Similar symptoms between the two include fever and/or chills, shortness of breath or difficult breathing, fatigue, sore throat, runny/stuffy nose, muscle pain/body ache, headache, and even vomiting/diarrhea.

It also can take at least one or more days after someone is infected by either virus to begin to experience any illness symptoms mentioned above. While it usually takes longer for COVID-19 symptoms to develop.

There’s similarities in even unintentionally sharing either viruses. For both, it’s possible to spread the virus during a 24-hour period before experiencing any symptoms, even longer for someone with COVID-19.

Military health personnel wearing a face mask and shield while holding a needle
NHB/NMRTC Bremerton’s Immunization Clinic staff, like Navy Hospitalman Justmin Lambatin, routinely provide patient-centered support with the administration of vaccines – from influenza to COVID-19. (Photo by Douglas Stutz.)

Both viruses can be spread and shared from person to person, especially between those in close contact – six feet or less - with each other. Both are shared by droplets that occur when someone with the illness coughs, sneezes, or talks. The droplets spray out and land on someone else and get inhaled into their lungs. A person can also get physically infected by shaking hands, touching a handrail or door knob that has the virus on it and then touching their own nose, eyes or mouth.

Both are hidden. They can be spread by someone not knowing they have either due to no symptoms apparent, or having mild symptoms, and even by those who never develop symptoms – asymptomatic.

Those who are at high risk - such as older adults, people with underlying medical conditions and those who are pregnant - can become severely sick by both viruses and possibly deal with a host of complications such as pneumonia, respiratory failure, and the worsening of chronic medical conditions.

Frederick, attests that immunization is a primary method of reducing seasonal influenza illness, along with helping to eliminate the pandemic.

There are also multiple steps for everyone to follow that can be done daily to mitigate the potential spread of both viruses. One of the most effective is hand washing; avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth with unwashed hands; avoid close contact with sick people and maintain social distancing of at least six feet; cover cough/sneezes and discard used tissues and wash hands immediately afterwards; cover your nose and mouth with a face mask when around others; and clean/disinfect frequently touched surfaces at least daily.

Using a football analogy, Frederick stressed that with the COVID-19 vaccine being administered, “for ten months we’ve been playing defense against this virus. Now it feels like we’re finally on the offense.”

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