Flu season and COVID-19: your questions answered
When the COVID-19 pandemic began, many Canadians had to quickly adjust overnight in order to protect our loved ones and our communities. Our efforts have made a big difference — but we’re not out of the woods yet.
Experts on the TELUS Medical Advisory Council expect that the recent climb in COVID-19 cases across the country may create a “double wave”: a simultaneous combination of COVID-19 and our annual flu season.
Medical experts and health officials are working around the clock to prepare for this, but Canadians are understandably worried and looking for answers.
Dr. Dominik Nowak, Physician Lead for the TELUS Medical Advisory Council and Faculty at the University of Toronto, answers your most commonly asked questions about flu season and COVID-19:
1) If I have cold-like symptoms, how will I know if I have the flu or COVID-19?
Influenza (the flu) and COVID-19 are alike in that they’re both contagious respiratory illnesses, but they are caused by different viruses. Especially early on, both can show up with identical symptoms, which can include fever, cough, difficulty breathing, sore throat, tiredness, and a stuffy nose. Testing is one way to help tell them apart. The bottom line is, if you develop any symptoms, no matter how mild, you must isolate and connect with your local health system to seek out any appropriate testing and contact tracing.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has compiled this helpful resource that compares COVID-19 and the flu, based on the best information we have to date. We know, for instance, that it often takes a few days after exposure for someone to develop symptoms from the COVID-19 virus. Until then, people can be contagious without knowing it, which is why it’s so important to keep our “social bubbles” small, and be diligently-distanced with interactions outside our bubbles – in addition to wearing a mask and practicing hand hygiene.
2) Is COVID-19 more deadly than the flu?
COVID-19 is thought to be around ten times as deadly as the regular flu1. That said, both can cause serious illness and death, and we know that the flu kills hundreds of thousands of people globally every year.
Each country’s death rate from COVID-19 differs in part based on who gets the virus in that country: although healthy people can get infected by both the flu and COVID-19 viruses, older adults, people with pre-existing medical conditions, and those with compromised immune systems are the most vulnerable to severe disease from either. Tragically, approximately eight out of every ten COVID-19 deaths in Canada have been in long-term care homes (double the OECD average) 2. And while anyone can get seriously ill, we can all transmit both the flu and COVID-19 to others. This is why it is so important we stay diligent through the coming months.
3) I am taking so many extra safety measures and my exposure to others is limited. Do I really need the flu vaccine this year?
The flu vaccine protects us and those around us. The looming threat of a winter “double wave” also means a shared duty for all Canadians to be proactive about influenza, our usual winter epidemic. Although the flu is less deadly than the COVID-19 virus on a case fatality basis, both are serious. I have cared for many people who ultimately died or had serious harm from influenza.
However Fall and Winter progress, we cannot afford to have both COVID-19 and influenza epidemic waves rolling through our communities at the same time. Flu vaccination helps reduce risk of hospitalization and death. It will be crucial for all Canadians who can to immunize, in order to protect themselves and their loved ones.
It’s more important this year than ever to get your flu vaccine.
4) Should I be worried about side effects from the flu vaccine?
No. Most people have very mild or no side effects from getting the flu vaccine, and severe reactions are very rare. It is safe for kids, adults, older adults and pregnant women to get vaccinated, and you cannot get the flu from the flu vaccine. If you have questions about potential side effects given your personal medical history, start a virtual consultation with a practitioner on your Akira by TELUS Health app, or consult your primary care professional.
5) Will the flu vaccine protect me, even partially, against COVID-19?
No. Getting the flu vaccine does not provide protection against the COVID-19 virus because it is designed specifically to protect against flu viruses. Each year, the vaccine is tailored to prevent against the circulating strains of influenza for that particular year. Getting your vaccine this Fall will significantly decrease your risk of getting the flu, help lower your risk of severe illness and hospitalization, and protect your loved ones and community.
6) Will getting the flu vaccine increase my risk of getting COVID-19?
No. A claim that people who get the flu vaccine are more likely to get COVID-19 has been spreading via social media, but there is no reason to believe that the flu vaccine will increase your risk of getting infected with the COVID-19 virus.
7) I used to get the flu vaccine at the office. How can I get it this year?
The flu vaccine will still be widely available in Canada this year. Contact your primary care professional or log on to your Akira by TELUS Health app for help locating the closest flu clinic locations near you.
8) If I have flu or COVID-19 symptoms — can I still go get the flu vaccine?
No. Flu vaccination should be postponed for anyone with a possible, probable, or confirmed case of COVID-19, or for anyone who is unwell. Mild illness is not usually a contraindication to flu vaccination, but you should wait until you are symptom-free and beyond any recommended self-isolation period to get the vaccine to avoid exposing healthcare workers and other patients to the COVID-19 virus.
It is also important to know that a previously suspected or confirmed case of COVID-19 or flu does not protect you from future flu infections. The best way to protect yourself from seasonal flu is to get vaccinated annually, as the circulating strains of flu change each year.