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Doctors Fear Flu Season Could Spell Trouble For Hospitals Burdened With The Coronavirus

Officials say even healthy people should receive a flu vaccine to protect the greater population.
File photo / Mary Delach Leonard
St. Louis Public Radio
The upcoming flu season could place a strain on hospitals and testing centers already dealing with coronavirus patients.

St. Louis doctors are urging people to get a flu vaccine early to help prevent hospitals from being overwhelmed by flu and coronavirus patients.

A serious flu season could place a burden on the health care system and could even put some people at risk of getting both diseases at the same time, health experts said.

“The flu vaccine has been our best way to prevent you from getting the flu,” said Dr. Steven Lawrence, an infectious disease specialist at Barnes-Jewish Hospital. “This year ... not only do you get yourself protected from the flu, you could protect against that possibility of being co-infected. And it helps to blunt the flu epidemic, so we don’t put the whole health system at risk.”

The coronavirus started spreading in St. Louis in March, after the worst of the 2019-20 flu season. Even without the flu patients, some local hospitals were close to capacity.

If hospitals are still treating a large number of coronavirus patients when the weather cools and the flu begins circulating, they could be overwhelmed by an influx of additional sick people. Hospitals typically see a large increase in hospitalizations during the winter months from people sick with influenza and other respiratory diseases.

The more people receive the flu vaccine and take other protective actions against getting the flu, the less of a burden there will be on doctors already under strain, Lawrence said.

People with the flu have similar symptoms to those with the coronavirus — coughing, fever and fatigue. That could put health systems further under strain as health workers attempt to test everyone who could be sick with the coronavirus.

“We are concerned this year since there are so many overlapping symptoms between COVID and the flu,” said Spring Schmidt, acting co-director of the St. Louis Department of Public Health.

She said that once someone gets sick, they will need to isolate themselves until they know they have the flu and not the coronavirus.

St. Louis County officials have been planning to open more drive-thru testing sites and step up efforts to educate people about the importance of the vaccine, she said.

Persuading people to receive a vaccine could be difficult this year, said Dr. Tim Wiemken, an epidemiologist at St. Louis University. Many people, fearful of getting sick, are avoiding clinics.

“I think we’re going to see a pretty abysmal response [this year],” he said. “There’s a lot of hesitancy, no one wants to seek health care, people don’t want to go to Walgreens or their doctor to get a shot.”

Fewer people are at work, where many receive their yearly flu shot, he said.

However, the flu season could be tempered by the social distancing, hand-washing and mask wearing people have adopted to stay safe from catching the coronavirus, Wiemken said. The things that prevent the spread of the new disease are also tried-and-true methods to prevent the spread of the flu.

There’s already evidence it will help. Once local and state governments put stay-at-home orders in place and people began to wear masks earlier this year, the incidence of flu dropped almost immediately, Lawrence said.

Follow Sarah on Twitter: @petit_smudge

Sarah Fentem is the health reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.