LACONIA — John Prickett, a registered nurse and emergency preparedness coordinator, has seen plenty of flu seasons in his 39 years at Lakes Region General Hospital. But this year his job is a little more strategic, and his goal is a little more pressing.
“Get a flu vaccine. Protect yourself. 2020 is going to be an odd year,” Prickett said. “This is kind of a new area for all of us.”
At a time when COVID-19 has captured the public’s worst fears, Prickett is a flu ambassador, a role that includes giving flu shots, educating vaccine-wary and needle-phobic consumers, and making sure hospital and clinic staff have the protection they need – especially during the high-risk months from October until May.
This season health care workers and the public will battle viruses on two fronts – trying to ward off COVID-19 and the flu, which typically peaks from December through March. Fever, chills, cough, sore throat, runny nose, fatigue – the symptoms of the two are nearly identical, according to the Centers for Disease Control. And that makes it tough to know exactly what you’re dealing with.
“At this time, anything we can do to avoid any infectious respiratory illness, colds and especially influenza becomes really important,” said Dr. Nora Janeway, medical director of Health First Family Care. Statewide, flu vaccination rates hover at 52 percent, according to CDC data from 2018-2019. Vaccination rates in New Hampshire range from 37 percent of younger adults, to 72 percent of kids under 5 and adults 65 and older – the age groups most vulnerable.
“I am struck by how many of my older patients,” including those who smoke or have diabetes, “say, ‘I don’t usually get sick, so I don’t want a flu shot,’ or ‘I got a flu shot once and got a cold two weeks later,’” Janeway said. “I appreciate all those folks who are rugged individualists and want to manage their own health care. But when it comes to getting a flu shot, I wish I could move the bar a bit.”
The fact that COVID and flu symptoms match closely can make diagnosis confusing for patients and practitioners, and that can delay time-sensitive treatment.
“Do I have COVID? Or do I have the flu? Or do I have both?” said Prickett, a flu ambassador for roughly 20 years, who has given thousands of influenza vaccines. “By getting the vaccine, you take one of these unknowns out.”
The value of flu shots goes beyond personal protection. In a normal flu season, health care systems are stressed, and decreasing flu hospitalizations will help hospitals respond to potential COVID cases, said Beth Daly, chief of the Bureau of Infectious Disease Control at the NH Department of Health and Human Services. On average, flu vaccines decrease medical visits for flu-related illness by 60 percent, she said.
This year’s vaccines are predicted to be highly effective, containing three or four non-living strains of Flu A and Flu B, inactive versions of serious and less-serious flu strains which together signal the body to mount antibodies.
Flu vaccination will help take the stress off local healthcare systems by thwarting a simultaneous spike of COVID and flu during winter, said Tammy Charmichael, executive director of the Partnership for Public Health for the Winnipesaukee region.
Flu shots are especially critical for people with pre-existing conditions such as asthma, diabetes or heart disease, Prickett said. Medical science still knows relatively little about the coronavirus, and although a vaccine is expected before or during the first half of 2021, there are still many unknowns, including how much will be widely available.
According to the CDC, symptoms of COVID and the flu include fever or feeling feverish, chills, cough, shortness of breath or difficulty breathing, fatigue, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, muscle pain or body aches, headaches, and vomiting or diarrhea, which is more common in children than in adults with the flu. More specific to COVID is a change in or loss of taste or smell, and nausea, vomiting or diarrhea in adults.
Short of vaccination, “The easiest way to keep from getting the flu is to wash your hands and don’t touch your face,” Prickett said. That plus wearing a mask and social distancing will reduce your risk of getting either illness, he said.
But the bottom line is to get vaccinated, experts say. “It’s simple. It’s easy. It’s relatively painless,” said Prickett. “People need to understand that the flu can be pretty deadly with pre-existing conditions and the shot can prevent people from getting so sick.”
New Hampshire is the country’s second oldest state behind Maine, with a significant and growing population over age 65. Even when the vaccine isn’t an exact match “it will still give your body a significant advantage, said Andrea Harper, an infectious disease prevention specialist at LRGH.
One of the most pernicious complications of influenza, according to a recent research, is sudden heart complications. In a study released last month by the CDC, one in eight patients hospitalized with influenza developed cardiac problems, a third of them ended up in intensive care, and 7 percent of them died.
“You might be OK with the flu,” Harper said, “but not with heart complications on top of it.”
The Sunshine Project is underwritten by grants from the Endowment for Health, New Hampshire’s largest health foundation, and the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation. Roberta Baker can be reached by email at Roberta@laconiadailysun.com