Heading into flu season, flu shot can reduce strain on hospitals and help keep Georgia’s economy on track

October 19,2020

A.J. Robinson for the AJC and Saporta Report

We’re still in a pandemic and flu season is almost here. If we want a healthy community and a healthy economy, we need to get as many people vaccinated against the flu as possible.

2020 just doesn’t let up.

Reducing the strain on our healthcare system during the flu season is our No. 1 priority. The flu vaccine reduces the risk of having to visit the doctor by 40 to 60 percent, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Vaccinating people over the age of six months is the best weapon in our arsenal to fight against the flu and its compounding influence on COVID-19 infections. 

Here’s the good news. Georgia’s COVID-19 positivity rate is down to 9.8 percent from 23 percent at the beginning of April. At our peak in mid-July, Georgia averaged more than 3,700 COVID-19 cases a day. Our current seven-day daily average is down to just over 1,274 cases. 

After straining for months under the weight of this pandemic, we’re finally seeing positive gains and our economy is getting stronger. While Georgia saw a slight increase in unemployment claims last week, that followed seven straight weeks of decline in unemployment benefit claims filed here. 

We clearly can’t let our guard down. 

That’s why the Metro Atlanta Chamber, the Georgia Hospital Association, and Central Atlanta Progress launched Get Georgia Well, an effort to generate support in the private sector to raise public awareness of behavioral change that can slow the spread of COVID-19. We want to stop the spread of the virus, both for the health of our community and for our economy.  

During the peak of the pandemic in July, some Georgia hospitals were overwhelmed with patients. As reported by GPB, Navicent Health in Macon had stretchers lined up against walls in the ER. Staff reached out to ICUs in other counties and states to handle their influx of patients, shipping patients all the way to Orlando, FL, in order to find open beds. 

Will our hospitals be able to handle a spike in both flu and COVID-19 cases? During the 2019/2020 flu season, 2,519 people were hospitalized with the flu in metro Atlanta alone.

It’s not just hospitals. Many of us infected with the flu stay home and heal with over the counter medicine and rest. But because of the similarity in symptoms between flu and COVID-19, people will justifiably be concerned and could inundate their healthcare providers when infected with COVID-like symptoms.

As our economy finds its footing, maintaining a healthy workforce is essential. According to a study published in the medical journal “Vaccine,” Americans miss 111 million workdays annually due to flu. The economic impact is $16.3 billion lost annually. 

Being infected with both viruses creates a host of problems. Coinfection can speed the spread of both viruses. Since 40 percent of people infected with COVID-19 are asymptomatic, they may unknowingly spread both viruses when coughing, sneezing and talking while infected with the flu. And it’s not just spreading the virus that is a concern. Flu affects the respiratory system. COVID-19 affects the vascular system as well which can lead to blood clots. 

“Coinfection of influenza and COVID-19 can affect multiple organ systems at the same time,” says Amber Schmidtke, who holds a PhD in Medical Microbiology and Immunology and is a former expert for the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention. “It’s not a situation you want to be in.” 

The CDC recommends getting the flu vaccine yearly. Children six months to eight years may need two doses, everyone else needs only one. It takes about two weeks to develop antibodies and get the full protection of the vaccine. Don’t wait until the end of October when the flu season starts to gear up. Get the flu shot now.

Make a plan to help employees get the flu shot. Consider hosting a free flu vaccine clinic on-site. If that’s not an option, offer flexibility during working hours to get a flu shot in the community. Send out communications to employees encouraging flu shots and where they are available.

We can work together to keep the flu virus from spreading but if we fail to take action, we risk overwhelming our hospitals, dealing with coinfections and potentially causing more cases of COVID-19. 

Thankfully, we can be proactive against influenza. According to the CDC, the “flu vaccine prevents millions of illnesses and flu-related visits to the doctor each year.”

We all want to keep our community healthy and see our economy stay on track. If a simple flu shot can help, take the time to get one today.

This article originally appeared in the Atlanta Journal Constitution on Thursday, October 15, 2020