Flu vs. COVID: Health experts urge ‘if someone does not have COVID, we’re not calling it COVID’

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KINGSPORT, Tenn. (WJHL) – According to health experts and available data, the current flu season thus far has been non-existent.

Pharmacist and Owner of Rowe’s Pharmacy in Kingsport, Tim Rowe, told News Channel 11’s Bianca Marais that this flu season has been “abnormal,” because he only knows of one confirmed case in the region.

“I’ve only actually heard of one confirmed and it was a pharmacist that was going to come work for me for one day and he was unable to work because he tested positive for the flu, and that’s the only case I have heard of this year,” he said. “I have dispensed not one single Tamiflu pack. Normally, depending on the severity of the flu season, normally there won’t be a week that goes by that we don’t see at least one case, and of course, whenever those cases get clustered into schools or places where it’s easily spread, you’ll obviously get more per week, but normal flu season? I would say this is very abnormal.”

During the last week of 2020, leading into the first week of 2021, the Tennessee Department of Health reported that only two of Tennessee’s 95 counties reported one or more positive flu cases over the prior six weeks. A week before, that number was three counties.

Source: Tennessee Department of Health

Dr. Leigh Johnson, Director of COVID Response for ETSU Health told News Channel 11’s Bianca Marais that there are two possible reasons for flu testing being lower than usual.

“If the testing for flu is lower, it’s due to one of two things, either folks are simply staying home if they have sort of a mild upper respiratory infection, they know they shouldn’t be out and with other folks and so they’re just choosing to stay home and may not get tested. And the other possibility is maybe there really is a lower caseload this year than before, and so there’s just not as many people experiencing those symptoms and coming in for tests. We certainly have seen lower flu burden in our clinic, in our family medicine clinic where I work, as opposed to normal years. We’ve usually started to see a few cases by this time of year and then really gets ramped up late January, early February,” Johnson said.

Source: CDC

To prevent a spike in flu cases, Johnson said to continue following COVID-19 guidelines, as they too help curb the spread of the flu.

“The best protection against the flu, is absolutely still the flu vaccine. Now is not too late to get it. Every primary care clinic and pharmacy should still have flu shots, and so, if you have not received your flu shot yet this season, it’s really important to get it. Again, because we simply don’t know if there’s going to be a spike, and so we want everyone to be protected,” she added.

Rowe agreed with Dr. Johnson, adding that the COVID-19 measures are step one, but if you start to feel symptoms, talking to your healthcare provider is step two.

“There’s not really much in the way that we can tell folks to prevent the flu, other than just distancing and washing our hands,” he said

He recommends talking with your healthcare provider about immune-boosting vitamin regimens as the pandemic and flu season progresses.

Flu vs COVID: ‘COVID numbers are far higher than flu numbers’

The misconception that flu cases are being disguised as COVID-19 cases, are wholly inaccurate, according to Johnson.

“When we test for flu, and we get a negative result, there’s a possibility that person could still have the flu – some of the rapid flu tests do have a pretty high false negative rate, but if we are testing for COVID, it’s either positive or it’s not and so, if someone does not have COVID, we’re not calling it COVID, and so, those tests really are the best indicator we have right now of the numbers of flu and COVID cases in the community, so I don’t think things are being mislabeled. There are plenty of people who had a mild respiratory illness who didn’t get any tests, and they may have a feeling that they had either the flu or COVID, but we just can’t confirm that, so it can be hard to sort out without a diagnostic test,” she told News Channel 11’s Bianca Marais.

Dr. Johnson explained that though the novel coronavirus and the flu virus seem very similar, they are not to be compared.

“Flu and COVID do have very similar symptoms for a lot of people, so fever, chills, headaches, sore throat, runny nose, cough, congestion, body aches, fatigue, those do cross over quite a bit. The difference is that COVID numbers are far higher than flu numbers, so when we’re talking about a pandemic, we’re talking about just an order of magnitude of spread much beyond a normal virus. Every year in this country, about 30,000 people die from the flu and at this point, we’re hitting that in a week from COVID, and so that just speaks to how much more prevalent COVID is, how many more people get it, and how much more severe it is, and I can tell you from personal experience from working in the hospital, this is not an illness that you want to get and it is not an illness that you want a loved one to get it can just have catastrophic consequences, and so it is much more severe, in general, than the flu, it is much more worrisome – the spread is much more worrisome – and so we are asking people to just believe that it is real, it is serious, and there are some very simple things you can do to prevent it. It’s not anything crazy – it’s wearing masks, staying home, washing hands, avoiding crowds, avoiding being indoors unmasked – those are the things we’ve been asking since the beginning of the pandemic, and we continue to ask those of our community,
she said.

Another aspect of confusion is “flu-like symptoms” which health experts said cause folks to misconstrue “the sniffles” for the flu, and ultimately for COVID-19.

“It’s difficult to tell the difference, especially for the person who is sick. You and I have both been out, say, at the grocery store and you run into a neighbor: ‘hey, how are you doing?’ ‘oh, I’m okay, I’ve got a touch of the flu,’ if they had the flu they wouldn’t be at the grocery store, they’d be flat on their back in bed. So, the definition for ‘what is the flu?’ for the public at large is kind of murky anyway, we call it the flu when we just have the sniffles,” Rowe explained. “We’ve got this virus that has impacted all of us for the last year to varying degrees, and an absolute absence of a virus that we normally see.”

Following social guidelines such as washing hands, keeping your distance, avoiding crowded gathers and avoiding time indoors without a mask on, could help curb both the spread of COVID-19 and the flu.

“There’s really good data now that communities with higher levels of mask-wearing and more significant mask mandates have lower levels of hospitalizations and deaths, so there’s no question in communities where more people are choosing to wear masks and to follow those guidelines, their communities are healthier and are seeing less spread of COVID, so it’s not perfect, it’s not a cure-all, it’s not 100%, but it is absolutely the best thing we have, and again, it’s very easy,” Johnson explained. “Wearing a mask is just not a big deal and for the vast majority of people wearing a mask is a very simple choice that you can make to protect not just your health, but the health of the people around you.”

Follow News Channel 11’s Bianca Marais on Facebook and Twitter for updates.

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