Flu Season And COVID-19 Are Raising Concerns About A Possible ‘Twindemic’

COVID-19 flu vaccinations
In this December, 2020 file photo, a nurse gives a COVID-19 vaccination in Chicago. Many vaccination sites in the city and suburbs will also be offering flu shots this fall. Charles Rex Arbogast / Associated Press
COVID-19 flu vaccinations
In this December, 2020 file photo, a nurse gives a COVID-19 vaccination in Chicago. Many vaccination sites in the city and suburbs will also be offering flu shots this fall. Charles Rex Arbogast / Associated Press

Flu Season And COVID-19 Are Raising Concerns About A Possible ‘Twindemic’

Now that fall is here, health care professionals are concerned about a “twindemic” — a concurrent flu season and ongoing COVID-19.

WBEZ gathered data from Chicago’s and Illinois’ public health departments in addition to chatting with Walgreens Chief Medical Officer Kevin Ban to learn more about the uniqueness of this flu season and how to stay safe.

Why the “twindemic” concern this year but not in 2020?

Because we’re not in a lockdown like we were during the height of the pandemic last year. People are out and about more, so there’s a greater risk of the flu.

With the surge of COVID-19 in 2020 and regulations that limited people’s contact with one another, many practiced habits that helped mitigate the spread of the flu.

“In over 20 years of practicing medicine, I have never seen us have such a low flu season,” Ban said. “Last year, we did an exceptionally good job of getting people vaccinated [against the flu]. And in the context of people following basic rules of masking, social distancing and hand hygiene, we saw what was essentially a non-existent flu season.”

But Ban is concerned about lower flu vaccination rates so far this year compared with 2020, and early indicators of an uptick in flu cases.

“When we compare the number of cases at the end of September 2020 to the number of cases at the end of September this year, the number this year is higher,” Ban said. “This is a concerning signal that people may not be updated on their flu vaccines, although the season is early.”

What is the difference between flu and COVID-19 symptoms?

Many symptoms overlap, but there are differences.

“Flu usually comes on more suddenly, a person with COVID-19 can be contagious for a longer period of time compared to flu, and COVID-19 seems to cause more severe illnesses in some people overall,” according to a news release from the Illinois Department of Public Health.

Symptoms of both illnesses include fever, shortness of breath, cough, sore throat and fatigue.

Can one vaccine protect me against the other?

No. COVID-19 and influenza are two different viruses that require different vaccines. But both are preventable by vaccines and by taking precautions like hand-washing, social distancing and wearing masks.

Is it safe to get both vaccines at the same time?

Many health clinics and pharmacies are offering COVID-19 and flu vaccines right now and, yes, it’s safe to get both during the same visit, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. With either shot, people may feel arm soreness or flu-like symptoms for up to three days.

But the CDC says there’s no data to suggest getting both vaccinations at once will increase side effects.

Where can I get a flu shot?

Public health agencies and pharmacy chains are offering them now. The Chicago Department of Public Health scheduled more than 50 community flu and COVID-19 clinics across the city. Residents can get flu shots at zero cost at any of these clinics over the next two months.

The city will launch a public awareness campaign in two weeks to promote vaccination, with print, digital and video ads in both Spanish and English.

The Cook County Department of Public Health is partnering with various community events in the city and suburbs to offer vaccines.

Walgreens, CVS and other stores allow people to pre-schedule or walk-in to receive either vaccine.

Does vaccine hesitancy raise the risk of a ‘twindemic’?

The coronavirus pandemic has brought the issue of vaccine hesitancy to the surface of the American conscience. Ban and Chicago Public Health Director Allison Arwady stress that posing questions to health care experts and seeking accurate information can help people decide whether to get vaccinated.

“The most important thing is to meet people where they are as it pertains to flu or COVID,” Ban said. “Then you can have a personal conversation that helps them get the information they need to make an informed decision.”

At one of Dr. Arwady’s recent “Ask Arwady” news conferences, where she fields COVID-19 and other health questions, one online viewer asked, “Are you aware the vaccines are tainted with HIV, PPV and mono?”

Arwady said she is grateful for questions like that so she can help dispel myths.

“When I’m seeing people post these kinds of questions, please send me what you’re reading and let’s have a conversation about it. We may not fully agree on all the details, but I want to set you straight on the science as much as I can,” Arwady said.

As we move into flu season could there be more COVID-19-related lockdowns?

It depends on the virus’s movement. Arwady said recently the city’s goal is to “stay open and stay careful.”

She said a return of restrictions is possible, “if we saw that COVID or COVID and flu together is seriously threatening our health care system, or if we had a new variant come in, for example, where the vaccine was no longer protective against the virus or some other.”

Arwady encourages people to get their flu shots and COVID-19 vaccines when they can

Adora Namigadde is a metro reporter for WBEZ. Follow her @adorakn.