Health officials say onset of flu season another wild card in COVID-19 pandemic

Health officials urge residents to be vaccinated against flu

Mike Easterling
Farmington Daily Times
A sign directs drivers to a drive-thru flu shot clinic at San Juan Regional Medical Center last year. The hospital will be offering the clinics again this year on Oct. 24 and Oct. 31.
  • San Juan Regional Medical Center did not have any patients who were suffering from the seasonal flu and COVID-19 last spring.
  • But Dr. Brad Greenberg says he anticipates there will be some coinfection cases here this year.
  • The hospital is offering two free drive-thru flu shot clinics later this month.

FARMINGTON — While the COVID-19 pandemic continues to command the attention of health care workers and officials around the country, the beginning of fall means they soon will be facing another serious challenge — the seasonal flu.

But there is some optimism that the precautions many people are taking to lessen their chances of contracting COVID could help reduce flu transmission rates over the next several months.

Penny Hill, the infection prevention and employee health manager at San Juan Regional Medical Center in Farmington, said flu season in northwest New Mexico typically runs from December through March, although some cases are recorded as early as September or as late as May.

She said that while there was a brief overlap between the onset of the pandemic and the end of flu season last spring, the hospital did not have any patients then who developed both illnesses at the same time — a condition known as a coinfection.

But Dr. Brad Greenberg, medical director of emergency preparedness at the hospital, said there were some coinfection cases recorded in such locales as China and New York, and he won't be surprised if San Juan County experiences that phenomenon this year.

Greenberg noted coinfections have been associated with longer hospital stays for patients and an increase in mortality. He said there also indications that coinfected patients shed COVID-19 — that is, become contagious — for a longer period than COVID patients who don't have the flu. Early research indicates COVID-19 patients are contagious for approximately 12 days, while coinfected patients shed the virus for approximately 17 days.

San Juan Regional Medical Center's Dr. Brad Greenberg and Penny Hill, the hospital's infection prevention and employee health manager, are urging San Juan County residents to get a flu shot early this year.

Greenberg emphasized there are still many unknowns about COVID-19, and he expects health care professionals to develop a much better understanding of it in the months ahead.

"A lot of the science about the why, we're not there yet," he said. "We're going to learn a lot this winter."

Keep up to date:The latest coronavirus updates from San Juan County, Four Corners region

Greenberg noted that there have been indications that the recently concluded flu season in the Southern Hemisphere was less severe than normal this year. He said Australia experienced 450 to 500 fewer deaths from the flu than in a typical year, and that could be attributed to the precautions people there took to avoid catching COVID-19, including social distancing, wearing a face mask, washing their hands frequently and minimizing their travel.

"Deaths there were significantly less than they were in the past," Greenberg said.

David Morgan, the spokesman for the New Mexico Department of Health, also noted those positive reports.

"It appears that flu in the Southern Hemisphere (which is coming out of their winter) has been much reduced, likely through the COVID Safe Practices that also help reduced the transmission of all viral respiratory infections," he wrote in an email to The Daily Times. "That said, we consider it possible that some persons will have COVID-19 and influenza at the same time and are encouraging physicians to consider testing for both."

Drivers line up to take part in a 2019 flu shot clinic at San Juan Regional Medical Center.

Greenberg described himself as cautiously optimistic that the widespread adoption of COVID safe practices by people in New Mexico could result in a less-severe flu season this year. But he noted this year's conditions are unique, and everyone bears a degree of responsibility for the outcome.

"This is all about choice," he said. "How we do as a community is the sum of our individual choices."

Hill said she typically notices an increase in flu cases in the days after Thanksgiving, which she attributes to the fact that so many people travel across the country for the holiday — a factor that can easily help the bug spread from a hot spot to an area that previously had little or no exposure. She emphasized the importance of minimizing travel this year, but she said the biggest contributor to a relatively mild flu season this year is likely to be the willingness of residents to get vaccinated.

"I hope everyone can strongly consider getting it," she said, explaining that while getting vaccinated won't eliminate your chances of catching the flu, it can positively affect the severity of the illness if you do get it and reduce your chances of dying from it.

Morgan said state health officials encourage residents to get a flu shot every year, but they are making a particular point of taking that step this year.

"It's important to add the protection of influenza vaccination and to contact their health care provider early if they develop fever and influenza-like symptoms so their symptoms can be correctly diagnosed and treated," he states in his email.

Janine Emery, the nurse supervisor for the San Juan County Public Health Office, said her office has yet to receive this year's flu vaccine, but she said she had not received any indications of an increase or decrease in demand for the vaccine this year. She agreed there is a concentrated effort among health officials nationwide to urge people not to wait.

San Juan Regional Medical Center personnel assist people taking part in the hospital's 2019 drive-thru flu shot clinic.

"There is a push for people to get their vaccine now," she said.

As a former school nurse, Emery said she had seen both early and late starts for flu season, and she declined to hazard a guess about when it would show up this year.

"This year, who knows what it's going to look like?" she asked rhetorically.

But she believes there is a chance that the widespread adoption of COVID safe practices will prove to be a deterrent to the spread of this year's flu.

"I would hope so," she said. "We're all in uncharted territory, and there will be a lot of 'Let's see what happens.'"

Hill said she is encouraged by what she has personally heard or seen from people  as flu vaccinations became available in September.

"We've heard a lot of people and a lot of health care workers seeking out flu vaccinations very early," she said. "It's a really good sign."

As for maintaining those COVID safe practices, Greenberg said people need to think of them not in terms of a transitional or temporary response.

Syringe are stacked on a supplies table during the 2019 drive-thru flu shot clinic outside San Juan Regional Medical Center.

"We're in a situation now where this is about long-term changes," he said, adding that it is hard to convince some people to alter their behavior for a prolonged period. He said he understands that it is natural for people to become complacent about adhering to COVID safe practices as time goes by, but he fears any lapse in precautions could have serious consequences.

"These are things that have to turn into habits for everyone," he said. "If we can do that, we can probably have a similar experience to what happened in the Southern Hemisphere."

Hill urged people to remain patient — and careful.

"They need to stick with this until the vast majority of Americans have had a (COVID-19) vaccination," she said.

As it does every year, the hospital will offer two free drive-thru flu shot clinics this year. The first one is scheduled to take place from 9 a.m. to noon on Saturday, Oct. 24, and the second one will be offered from 9 a.m. to noon on Saturday, Oct. 31. Both will be held in the hospital's north visitor parking lot at the corner of Maple Street and Schwartz Avenue in Farmington.

More:Coronavirus pandemic hits San Juan, McKinley counties hardest in New Mexico

Participants will need to wear a mask and bring a cell phone, as the procedure for the clinics will be different this year in an effort to reduce paperwork, according to a press release from the hospital. After getting in line, participants will be directed to call registration and give their information over the phone.

Those who are experiencing any COVID-19 symptoms such as a sore throat, cough, body aches, fever ore respiratory symptoms are asked to wait to get a flu shot.

Hospital officials said the shots are available on a first-come, first-served basis for people 18 years or older. Federal officials recommend that everyone 6 months old or older receive the vaccine by the end of October, especially those in high-risk groups.

Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610 or Support local journalism with a digital subscription.