When two viruses collide: COVID and influenza

Woman with flu

Influenza (flu) season is around the corner and this year comes with yet another challenge in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In order to reduce the dual impact of these viruses on the population and to avoid an influx of people becoming ill with the flu and coronavirus, Dr. Kevin Katz, Medical Director, Infection Prevention and Control at North York General Hospital, knows it’s more important than ever to get the flu shot.

Dr. Kevin Katz-550
Dr. Kevin Katz, Medical Director, Infection Prevention and Control at North York General Hospital

“Flu often takes a huge toll on the healthcare system, so it's extremely important for everyone to do what they can to decrease their chances of infection,” says Dr. Katz. “If not, hospitals and healthcare facilities can become overwhelmed by treating both flu and COVID-19 patients.”

COVID-19 and the flu are both contagious respiratory diseases caused by viruses. They also have common symptoms and spread the same way – through close droplet contact or touching a surface with the virus and then touching your mouth, nose or eyes. Because there is no way to tell the difference between COVID and the flu other than with a test and because symptoms overlap, it’s vital to reduce the burden of the flu as much as possible.

“We can’t differentiate between COVID-19 and the flu by symptoms alone, so if we can eliminate episodes of flu and eliminate those symptoms, we will require less testing and therefore less burden on the system as a whole,” explains Dr. Katz.

In order to make our fall experience easier, Dr. Katz says we need to continue wearing a mask, practicing hand hygiene and spatial separation, and get our influenza shot. Each time you have a case with those symptoms, it leads to anxiety, testing, potential exposures and quarantining.

Combat COVID

In order to meet demand, lab testing capacity will likely increase. “Right now, Ontario is conducting approximately 30,000 tests a day (with capacity of 40,000/day) with plans to double capacity in the fall,” says Dr. Katz. “The Shared Lab, whose members include North York General and Michael Garron hospitals, Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre and Scarborough Health Network is playing a role in trying to do this.”

As we go into flu season in Ontario, we will be in a different circumstance than in March. We won’t be in lock down – kids are in school and stores are open.

“I do hope we will have a lighter flu season than normal, but we each have a role to play by getting our influenza vaccine and adhering to public health guidance,” says Dr. Katz.

This article first appeared in the September 2020 issue of The Pulse.

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