ELLSWORTH — Nobody wants to self-isolate for 10 days or quarantine for 14 days, but as we head into flu season under the grip of COVID-19, each and every sniffle is likely to induce a heightened response.
The flu caused 82 deaths in Maine during the 2017-18 season and 42 deaths during the 2019-20 season as of May 16. In a typical year, thousands of people statewide test positive for the disease.
This, however, is not a typical year.
This year, as Mainers prepare for the flu season, they will also have an ongoing coronavirus pandemic, and the two are expected to overlap. To ease the burden, and to keep people healthy, medical professionals are urging everyone who can to get a flu vaccine.
“This presents an interesting situation,” said Dr. Julius Krevans of Mount Desert Island Hospital in Bar Harbor of the overlap between influenza and coronavirus. On one hand, he explained in an interview on Monday, all the measures people are taking to prevent the spread of COVID-19 such as social distancing, washing hands and wearing a face covering are also effective against spreading the flu.
“In the Southern Hemisphere, where flu season is ending, we’ve seen a lessened season overall,” said Krevans.
But if a person’s immune system is forced to have to defend itself against COVID-19 and the flu at the same time, it can have dramatic consequences including the trigger of a hyper-inflammatory immune response known as acute respiratory distress syndrome.
The flu, which circulates from October through April, tends to move across the United States from west to east, explained Dr. Mike Murnik, VP senior physician executive of Northern Light Blue Hill and Maine Coast hospitals, with Maine beginning and ending its flu season later than its West Coast counterparts.
Symptoms of the flu include fever, chills, cough, sore throat, muscle and body aches and fatigue. Those are the same symptoms as COVID-19, said Murnik, noting that one distinguishing feature of COVID-19 — the loss of smell and or taste — could also occur when a cold or allergies clog the olfactory system.
When people are sick with a cold or flu, they tend to do well with rest and chicken soup while their immune systems battle the virus. Both flu and COVID-19 present in similar ways, said Murnik, and some people will get really sick while others may have a mild case. Both are respiratory diseases that are primarily transmitted by droplets in the air.
For most people with the flu, resting at home until symptoms pass will usually do the trick, but Murnik urges people to “monitor symptoms” and seek medical attention when necessary.
Above all, say the medical professionals, don’t risk spreading the flu or any other illness. That means staying at home when you are sick.
This year the stakes are higher, said Krevans.
In a typical year, he said, “if one member of a family has a cough or fever, they are given soup, everyone washes their hands and they wait. This year no one goes to school, no one goes to work, and everyone gets a COVID test” before activities can resume.
The flu has an incubation period of anywhere from one to three days after infection. For COVID-19, symptoms typically appear anywhere from five to 14 days after infection.
Who should get a flu shot?
According to Murnik, “everybody not allergic to the flu vaccine should get one.”
While pharmaceutical companies vie to be first to bring a coronavirus vaccine to the market, the flu vaccine has been around for the last 80 years. Getting a flu shot, said Murnik, will limit community transmission of the flu virus. That could reduce the flu-related demand for medical services, freeing up those resources to handle possible coronavirus cases.
“The flu shot is available now,” said Krevans, adding that he received his on Tuesday.
“It will help you as an individual, but it will also help the community by limiting the amount of virus that is circulating,” he said, allowing the community to remain healthy and to keep schools and businesses open.
Where to get a flu shot
Flu shots and clinics are beginning to take shape. Walgreens, Shaw’s and Community Pharmacy locations are offering walk-in flu vaccinations. Appointments to receive the vaccine can also be made with a primary care physician.
Other area clinics known by press time include a free flu shot clinic at the Ellsworth Free Medical Clinic on Saturday, Sept. 26, from 10 a.m.-2 p.m. as well as the following drive-thru clinics:
- Saturday, Sept. 26 – Blue Hill Hospital, 57 Water St., Blue Hill, 9 a.m.-noon.
- Saturday, Sept. 26 – Maine Coast Hospital, 50 Union St., Ellsworth, 9 a.m.-noon.
- Saturday, Oct. 3 – Northern Light Primary Care, 102 Court St., Castine, 9 a.m.-noon.
- Saturday, Oct. 3 – Deer Isle-Stonington High School, Deer Isle, 9 a.m.-noon.
- Saturday, Oct. 3 – Blue Hill Hospital, 57 Water St., Blue Hill, 9 a.m.-noon.
- Saturday, Oct. 3 – Maine Coast Hospital, 50 Union St., Ellsworth, 9 a.m.-noon.
For more information, or to pre-register, call 374-2311 for Blue Hill Hospital flu clinics and 664-7751 for Maine Coast Hospital flu clinics.