Opinion: Are we facing a double-whammy pandemic?
Here’s a chilling thought: Flu season is here. Like the coronavirus, the flu virus is spread easily through the air on infected water vapor and can enter the body through the same passageways: mouth, nose, and eyes. The virus can live on surfaces, like countertops, for hours. So making contact with contaminated objects and then touching one’s face can spread the illness. However, using the common-sense precautions with which we’ve become familiar over the past several months can curtail the disease.
Influenza (flu) and COVID-19 are both contagious respiratory illnesses, but they are caused by different viruses. However, some of the health issues are similar, so it may be difficult to tell the difference between them, based solely on symptoms. However there are at least two important differences between flu and coronavirus.
First, there are FDA-approved influenza vaccines available, and getting the vaccine this fall will not only reduce the risk of getting the disease but also help to conserve scarce health-care resources. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, this year’s flu vaccines were updated to be a better match for the viruses expected to be circulating in the United States.
A quadrivalent high-dose vaccine is recommended for adults who are 65 years of age and older. It is formulated to fight four strands of the virus that might be encountered during the fall and winter. There is also the “standard dose” flu shot for everyone else.
Although the vaccine has been available for a couple of months, the CDC did not recommend getting the injection in July or August, especially for older people, because the effectiveness of the drug weakens over time. The advisory states, “September and October are good times to get vaccinated. However, as long as flu viruses are circulating, vaccination should continue, even in January or later.”
In contrast, there is no FDA-approved vaccination for coronavirus at this time. It will take months (with optimal experimental cautions, years) for proposed vaccines to go through prescribed trials and gain FDA approval.
Second, for people with severe flu symptoms, there are anti-viral treatments available. At the present time, there are four: Tamiflu, Relenza, Rapivab, and Xofluza. Tamiflu may be administered as a pill or liquid suspension to people 14 days and older. Relenza is a powder which is inhaled. It can be used by people 7 years and older, but it is not recommended for patients with breathing problems like asthma or COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease).
Rapivab is available only by injection and must be administered by a health-care professional. Xofluza is a single-dose pill for people 12 years of age or older, but it is not recommended for pregnant women, breastfeeding mothers, or people with progressive illnesses.
For coronavirus, a study called Adaptive COVID-19 Treatment Trial 3 began on Aug. 4, and is expected to enroll 1,038 adults at 100 sites across the country. The study will test the efficacy of the antiviral remdesivir plus the immunomodulator interferon beta-1a in patients who already have the coronavirus disease.
Southern hemisphere experience
The southern hemisphere has already had its flu season, and the data from four countries show interesting results. Like the northern hemisphere, the COVID-19 virus has spread through these countries, but the seasonal flu virus has also been present. However, very few cases of flu have been reported, compared to last year. Argentina, Chile, Australia, and South Africa had a combined 20,657 cases of flu documented in 2019. In 2020, they reported a combined total of only 104 cases, according to a report in the journal Science.
At South Africa’s National Institute for Communicable Diseases, Cheryl Cohen set up a plan to learn about the double whammy. But, the facility logged only one case since the end of March. Of course, some cases may have been overlooked, but Cohen said, “… I don’t believe it possible that we’ve entirely missed the flu season with all of our (surveillance) programs.” The prevailing thought at the institute is that travel restrictions, school closures, social distancing, and mask wearing have all but stopped flu from spreading in South Africa.
Perhaps there is a lesson to be learned by us in the United States. We might also avoid the double whammy if the federal government will give us the aid we need to close our schools and allow as many of us as possible to stay home as much as possible. Then it will be up to us, as individuals, to maintain social distancing and good hygienic practices. Wearing face masks may be the new normal, not just this year, but during each succeeding flu season.
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Noted: In my Aug. 15 column, I wrote that most bikers who attended the rally in Sturgis, S.D., neither wore face masks nor practiced social distancing. An Aug. 25 directive from the South Dakota Department of Health states, “Coronavirus cases across the United States have now declined for the fifth straight week but South Dakota has seen a 50 percent increase in infections following its annual motorcycle rally…”
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Jim Glynn is a retired professor of sociology. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.