Exhausted by the summer’s peak of coronavirus cases, Tampa Bay area hospitals are gearing up again for flu season.
Even in a typical year, flu cases can spread staff thin. But now, the community will be battling two respiratory viruses simultaneously that can look identical in patients.
Many of the initial symptoms — cough, aches, shortness of breath — are the same. That could confuse both patients as they start feeling ill and doctors as they diagnose and treat. Plus, some studies show people can catch both viruses at the same time.
“It presents a kind of conundrum for us,” said Dr. Andrew Myers, director of inpatient COVID-19 care at Tampa General Hospital.
Doctors will have to test all patients with respiratory issues for both the coronavirus and the flu, he said, using more time and resources, like swabs and protective equipment, for each admission.
The same will happen at BayCare Health System hospitals, said Dr. Nashant Anand, chief medical officer for the company, which operates 15 hospitals in and around Tampa Bay.
“If we have a really bad flu season and even a small spike in COVID, that’s going to strain the health system,” Anand said. “I can’t emphasize enough, prevention is the best medicine.”
That’s why primary care physicians are urging patients to get their flu shot — the biggest defense in helping hospitals rule out the flu when vaccinated people show up sick during the season.
The season runs roughly from October to May.
Meanwhile, doctors like Anand are talking with county and state officials to get the flu vaccine out to more vulnerable populations, like the elderly, he said. And hospitals are working to secure plenty of testing supplies that can tell the difference between COVID-19 and the flu.
LabCorp, a company processing many of Florida’s coronavirus tests, recently announced a single test that screens for both illnesses at once. Other manufactures are working on similar tests, Anand said. But they’ll be in shorter supply than those that screen for just one.
It’s hard to predict how bad this flu season will be in the region, said Michael Teng, associate dean of the College Internal Medicine at the University of South Florida. But he’s “cautiously optimistic.”
Community patterns have changed because of the coronavirus, and that might help slow spread of the flu, too. People are washing their hands, wearing masks and social distancing more than in previous flu seasons.
But at the same time, schools have gone back into session, bars are reopening and some people are returning to pre-pandemic ways of life, Myers said. That could cause more people to fall ill with the flu and COVID-19, all at the same time.
“There are definitely places where you won’t see people wearing masks,” Myers said. “That just makes it more likely that they could get COVID or the flu and spread it.”
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Getting the shot
Here are some locations besides the doctor’s office where you can receive the flu vaccine:
CVS: Free with most insurance. Without insurance, cost is $40 for those younger than 65 and $70 for those older. Schedule ahead online or walk in. Receive a coupon for $5 off a $20 purchase.
Pinellas County health department: Free with most insurance. Without insurance, cost is between $30 and $65. Soon, the department will roll out its flu season campaign, which will include events in October when the flu vaccine will be provided at no cost.
Publix: Free with most insurance. Without insurance, cost is $48 for those younger than 65 and $84 for those older. No appointment necessary. Free $10 Publix gift card, which can be applied to the cost of the vaccine.
Walgreens: Free with most insurance. Without insurance, cost is between $43 and $50. Schedule ahead online or walk in. Receive a coupon for $5 off a $20 purchase through Nov. 30.
Walmart: Free with most insurance. Without insurance, cost is between $37 and $75. Schedule ahead online.
Winn Dixie: Free with most insurance. Without insurance, cost is $50 for patients younger than 65 and $75 for patients older. No appointment necessary.
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