Flu Season Shots and Covid-19 Pandemic: Dealing with Higher Volume

The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the global healthcare industry in 2020 has been truly unprecedented. As the nation now prepares to head into the winter cold and flu season, there is one question weighing heavy on everyone’s minds: Is the American healthcare system prepared to handle a combined COVID-19 and flu season? 

According to the CDC, in an average year approximately 8% of the U.S. population gets sick from the influenza (flu) virus, with a range of between 3% and 11% depending on the season. During 2019-2020 flu season there were an estimated 38 million cases of influenza, 18 million flu associated medical visits, 400,000 hospitalizations, and 22,000 flu associated deaths.

Seasonal flu vaccinations have historically been key to managing the influenza virus. During the 2019-2020 flu season, administered flu shots prevented an estimated 7.5 million flu illnesses, 3.7 million flu medical visits, 105,000 flu hospitalizations, and 6,300 flu deaths. 

This year, the CDC has emphasized the importance of getting a flu shot during the 2020-2021 influenza season. Considering the tremendous strain COVID-19 has already placed on our healthcare system, co-circulation of both viruses during flu season could result in more respiratory illnesses, hospitalizations, and deaths than we have seen in the last century.

How to Deal with Higher Volume During COVID-19 / Flu Season

Vaccine manufacturers estimate between 194 and 198 million doses of flu vaccine will be available this season. While administering as many flu shots as possible is important to slowing the spread of illnesses and reducing the burden on our healthcare system, provider safety is a major concern. Additionally, managing the increased demand for both flu and COVID-19 laboratory testing is predicted to become more difficult during the winter months.

Administering Flu Shots Safely During the COVID-19 Pandemic

The CDC recommends that healthcare personnel use every opportunity to administer flu shots to all eligible persons during the flu vaccination season. Essential workers (including clinicians, phlebotomists, and other healthcare staff) and patients at increased risk of severe illness or complications from influenza or COVID-19 should be given special consideration. 

Side effects of the flu shot may mimic some of the symptoms of COVID-19, including chills, headache, body aches, and fever. If they occur, these side effects usually resolve within 48 to 72 hours. Healthcare providers should advise patients receiving the flu shot to stay home until they have been fever-free for 24 hours without the use of fever-reducing medications if they develop any of these symptoms. 

The flu shot does not cause respiratory symptoms such as cough or shortness of breath; if the patient develops these symptoms after receiving the flu shot, they should be counseled to contact their primary healthcare provider and/or stay home until symptoms resolve. 

Additionally, immunization providers should refer to the guidance developed by the CDC for preventing the spread of both COVID-19 and influenza while administering flu shots:

  • Screen patients for symptoms of COVID-19 and contact with persons with possible COVID-19 prior to and upon arrival at the facility
  • Ensure all staff follow standard infection prevention procedures such as hand-washing, wearing of medical face masks, gowns and gloves
  • Encourage all staff to receive an influenza vaccination (2019-2020 flu vaccination coverage among health care personnel was 80.6%)

Laboratory Testing During COVID-19 / Flu Season

Because the influenza and COVID-19 viruses both attack the respiratory systems, it is predicted that testing for both illnesses will increase exponentially during this year’s flu season. This may lead to a shortage of testing kits (much like we experienced during the spring and summer) as well as backlogs of ordered labs.

For patients with underlying health conditions who are at risk of COVID-19 complications, timely access to lab tests is vitally important. So, how can clinicians and laboratory professionals manage this increased demand for lab testing during flu season?

Establishing a testing algorithm, such as the one laid out by the CDC, can help clinicians decide when to test for COVID-19 and/or influenza. This type of workflow can reduce the risk of ordering unnecessary labs and placing additional strain on laboratory staff. 

Additionally, labs can create their own algorithms for managing incoming lab orders based on specific scenarios—for instance, an asymptomatic outpatient vs. a patient requiring hospitalization, or dual influenza / COVID-19 testing vs. testing for just one virus.

Now more than ever, it is important for laboratory leaders to be in close communication with clinicians, phlebotomists, and vaccine administrators. This will reduce the risk of miscommunications in regards to test procedures, turnaround times, and results availability.

There is still much we do not know about how a combined COVID-19 and flu season will impact the healthcare industry. But by planning ahead and taking all possible steps to protect essential healthcare workers, we can help providers and labs make it through this flu season successfully while providing the best possible care for patients.

Interested in joining the MOMS network to help increase your lab testing coverage? Learn more about how MOMS works.