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Hospitals prepare for flu season amid a COVID-19 pandemic

Posted at 1:24 PM, Dec 04, 2020

The pandemic is coinciding with flu season, which is a potentially dangerous scenario doctors and nurses have given much thought to as the winter months approach.

“How much is [the flu] going to play into things, and is it just going to make everything worse?” said Dr. Michelle Barron. “Is it going to comingle with COVID, and actually make people double sick or doubly ill?”

Dr. Barron is the senior medical director of infection prevention and control at one of Colorado’s largest hospitals. She says staff has come up with contingency plans to deal with an influx of patients who might be battling serious flu symptoms.

“We’ve been really encouraging our patients to get their flu shots and make sure they have that on their list,” she said. “We understand that there are some years that you’re debating whether or not it’s worth it, and we’re like this is the year you need to get it.”

The CDC estimates around 196 million flu shots are available this year, a 13 percent increase from last year’s record-setting dosage of 175 million. It is an important number as last year 400,000 people were hospitalized for the flu, a potential burden hospitals have prepared for as bed space is now at a premium.

“We’ve already surpassed the numbers of the first surge, so now, we’re like what’s next,” said Maddie Smith, a nurse at UCHealth in Colorado.

Smith works in the hospital’s COVID ICU. She says while her unit has not reached a tipping point, it is expecting more flu patients to come in. Her unit has made plans to allocate more bed space to the seriously ill, regardless of cause, and treat them with whatever drugs are necessary. The good news, she says, is the flu has been treated for years, so doctors have a good plan of attack, and the measures we have taken to reduce the spread of COVID-19 are having a positive effect on the spread of the flu.

“We usually are able to use the southern hemisphere as a good way to figure out what our flu season is going to look like,” said Dr. Barron. “They actually had a pretty mild flu season but COVID hit at the exact same time.”

Dr. Barron says 3 to 5 percent of COVID-19 patients have had co-infection with another virus, showing complications are possible as flu season hits its stride, but not guaranteed.

“I don’t think it’s anything that we can’t manage that we already haven’t thought about,” said Dr. Barron.