Articles and Updates from Phoenix Children's
The Intersection of Influenza and COVID-19
Every autumn, the influenza virus begins its sweep across the U.S., where it affects millions of people nationwide. This year, flu season will overlap with COVID-19, meaning two major respiratory viruses – both with the potential for severe illness and serious complications – will be circulating in the community at the same time. This could mean a double epidemic with far-reaching public health implications.
That’s why this year’s flu vaccine is more important than ever before.
The Risks of Flu
People often underestimate the seriousness of influenza. “I have the flu” has become a catchphrase for any number of mild illnesses, like the common cold. This has created a widespread misbelief that flu is no big deal – but this simply isn’t true.
During the 2019-20 flu season alone, between 39 and 56 million Americans were infected. This number includes 189 children who died during that season – more than half of whom were otherwise healthy. Moreover, children under 18 years old have the highest percentage of influenza-related medical visits of all age groups. They also play a major role in the transmission of the virus to household members and other close contacts.
The Ongoing COVID-19 Pandemic
As of October 2020, there have been more than 7.8 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the U.S. That number includes more than 500,000 children. More than 100 kids nationwide have died of the disease. Here in Arizona, more than 500 patients under the age of 20 have been hospitalized.
Meanwhile, COVID-19 continues to affect every corner of the planet. While the number of new cases in the U.S. has slowed due to public health measures like social distancing, wearing masks and hand washing, there remains a concern that numbers will spike again as kids across the country fill classrooms and resume daycare.
The Best Defense
Both influenza and COVID-19 threaten the health of adults and children alike – and it’s critically important that we all come together to curb the spread of both diseases.
Right now, the very best defense against serious illness from influenza is the flu vaccine. While medical professionals strongly recommend the vaccine every year, it’s more important than ever this flu season. There are a number of reasons for this.
- First, influenza causes immune suppression and predisposes kids to other infections. It’s not uncommon for children to be hospitalized with two different respiratory viruses – like flu and RSV – and illness can be considerably worse when a child is sick with two infections at the same time.
- Children may contract both COVID-19 and influenza at the same time. COVID-19 is brand new – we don’t know exactly how having both infections may affect the severity of the disease. However, we believe it may increase the risk of very serious illness.
- The flu shot reduces the risk among children. Since kids have the highest rates of influenza infection, protecting them from the flu also curbs the spread of illness to family members and other close contacts of all ages.
- It’s not just kids who need the flu shot. Influenza can create serious illness in people of all ages. That’s why we strongly encourage all adults and children ages 6 months and older to get the vaccine.
Common Questions and Misperceptions about Flu
- How do you tell the difference between flu and COVID-19? It can be hard to distinguish between these two infections because symptoms like fever, sore throat, cough and body aches are common to both. Additional testing may become necessary to check for both conditions, particularly if a child is not vaccinated against the flu. Unfortunately, obtaining test results for COVID-19 can take anywhere from 2-7 days, which makes it hard for parents who must wait for results before sending kids back to school or daycare. This also may require parents to miss work to take care of a sick child, which can pose additional challenges for families.
- Can flu shots make you sick? No, flu vaccines do not cause flu illness. Many people say they got the flu from the vaccine, but this is a dangerous misperception. Flu shots are given around the same time that RSV and other “common cold” viruses are circulating in the community. People often catch one of these viruses and then blame it on their flu shot.
- What if I get the shot and I still get the flu? The vaccine is not always 100% effective at preventing influenza, but we’ve learned that people who get sick with the flu after receiving the vaccine will experience milder symptoms. They will also have a much lower risk of complications from the infection. Therefore, while the vaccine may not prevent the infection in 100% of patients, it can prevent complications from the infection.
- Will getting the flu shot increase the chances of getting COVID-19? No, the two diseases are completely different. Getting a flu shot will not increase or reduce the risk of getting COVID-19. That’s why social distancing, wearing a face mask (for kids 2 and older) when in public, frequent hand washing and avoiding large gatherings continue to be important protections against COVID-19.
- Do my kids need a flu shot if they wear masks at school? Yes, we urge all children (ages 6 months and older) and families to get a flu shot this year. Many parents believe that the measures in place to curb the spread of COVID-19 – like masking and social distancing – will protect their kids from influenza. While we hope this is true, there are no guarantees. In fact, if there’s anything that’s predictable about influenza, it’s that it’s always unpredictable.
- Where do I get a flu shot? Flu vaccines are widely available through pediatricians’ offices, primary care providers and at some local pharmacies. Schools throughout Arizona are offering flu shots on campuses, too. Families of Phoenix Children’s Pediatrics and Phoenix Children’s Care Network can call their doctor’s office to schedule flu vaccines for their children.
Wassim Ballan, MD
Dr. Wassim Ballan went to the American University of Beirut for medical school, followed by pediatric residency at SUNY Upstate in Syracuse, NY. After completing his Pediatric Infectious Diseases fellowship at the University of California, San Francisco, he joined Phoenix Children's hospitalist service in 2007 and the Infectious Diseases division in 2011. He has served as Medical Director of Antimicrobial Stewardship Program since it was established and also serves as Associate Medical Director of Infection Prevention and Control.
Venkata Konanki, MD
Dr. Venkata Konanki is a pediatrician at Phoenix Children's Pediatrics at San Tan Village and Dobson Village. He obtained his medical degree from Osmania Medical College in Hyderabad, India and completed residency in Pediatrics at St. John Hospital and Medical Center in Detroit. Prior to coming to Phoenix, he worked in Chambersburg, PA for 10 years taking care of children in the office as well as those hospitalized. As a clinical assistant professor in pediatrics at Penn State College of Medicine in Hershey, PA, he also precepted medical students from 2018-2020.