The medical community is about to find out how prepared it is for the double whammy of influenza and COVID-19 that has been predicted for the fall of 2020. The complexities of diagnosis, management of vulnerable patients, and overflowing medical centers that have made the COVID-19 crisis so brutal may all be exacerbated by the arrival of seasonal influenza.
Lewis Jay Kaplan, MD, FCCP, a critical care surgeon at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, has seen his share of critically ill COVID-19 patients in the surgical ICU that he oversees. He’s approaching the upcoming flu season, poised to collide with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, ready to listen to each patient’s story to distinguish one from the other and determine treatment.
“The patients that have underlying comorbidities all have a story, and it’s up to you to figure out which chapter you’re in and how far along you happen to be,” he said. “It’s a very interesting approach to care, medical storytelling.”
With flu season closing in, pulmonologists are ruminating about how they’ll distinguish symptoms of COVID-19 and traditional influenza and how they’ll manage the most vulnerable patients, namely those with underlying respiratory disease and children. Influenza kills 12,000-61,000 people a year, according to the Centers for Disease Control, and results in 140,000-810,00 hospitalizations. Having a flu season in the midst of a pandemic of a disease with multiple overlapping symptoms threatens to overwhelm practitioners, hospitals, and the health system.
Dr. Kaplan said each patient’s story can point to the correct clinical approach. “Instead of just sharing data when you are on rounds, you’re really telling someone’s story.” It arises from a series of questions about how the disease has impacted them, specifics of their presentation, how their signs and symptoms differ from the usual, and how they responded to treatment. “It also helps you to then take what you’re doing, which can seem very, very complicated to individuals who are not medically sophisticated, and then help them to understand why you’re doing what you’re doing at this point.”
That can help get through to a patient with respiratory disease who insists he or she has or doesn’t have COVID-19 rather than the flu. “They form a different group that brings with them different fears and concerns, and you have to help them navigate that, too: all of this data and your decision-making around testing and admissions, and what you can omit doing and what you must do help them to navigate their own story,” Dr. Kaplan said.
Benjamin D. Singer, MD, a pulmonologist at Northwestern University, Chicago, authored an editorial in Science Advances that addressed four factors that will determine the scope of flu spread in the upcoming season: rate of transmission; vaccination rates; coinfection rates; and health disparities in minority populations, which are prone to higher rates of flu as well as COVID-19.
Flu vaccine ‘extra important’
The convergence of COVID-19 and influenza has the potential to overwhelm the health system, said Daniel A. Solomon, MD, of Brigham and Women’s in Boston. He coauthored a JAMA Insights clinical update on flu season during the COVID-19 pandemic that lists distinguishing and overlapping signs and symptoms of the two diseases.
The flu vaccine, he said, is “extra important this year,” especially in patients with existing respiratory disease, but COVID-19 has thrown up barriers to vaccination. Telemedicine has supplanted office visits. “People may miss that easy-touch opportunity to get the flu vaccine, so we have to be creative about making the flu vaccine highly accessible, maybe in nontraditional ways,” Dr. Solomon said. Some ideas he offered are pop-up vaccine fairs at schools and churches.
But just as COVID-19 may hinder flu vaccines, it may also be helping to mitigate flu transmission. “The interesting thing about transmission of the flu is that it’s transmitted the same way COVID is, so if we actually know how to decrease transmission of COVID, which we do – we’ve done it – we can actually decrease transmission of influenza as well,” Dr. Solomon said. Studies out of Hong Kong and Japan have reported a reduction in influenza cases during COVID-19 outbreaks in those places (Lancet Public Health. 2020;5:e279-88; JAMA. 2020;323:1969-71).