Battling a ‘perfect storm’


Many people may have thought they were battling an aggressive flu when the COVID-19 pandemic began, but the viruses have often proven to show similar early symptoms.

As the true flu season rapidly approaches, and with the coronavirus pandemic still a worldwide crisis, doctors are reminding patients that getting that dreaded flu shot is easier and more important than ever.

“The fact is that in a normal year, a flu shot is vital preventative medicine,” said Dr. Kurt Gambla, Chief Medical Officer at Beaufort Memorial Hospital. “Now, we’re facing a perfect storm of two viruses potentially peaking at the same time, so getting the flu shot is your best defense. As a society, it’s our best offense to avoid a worst-case scenario
medical crisis.”

According to Gambla, the flu vaccine typically takes two weeks to kick in and allows you to develop six months of antibody protection to the virus. With the peak flu season expected to be late November to early February, now is the time to schedule that shot.

According to the CDC, while vaccine effectiveness can vary, recent studies show that flu vaccination reduces the risk of illness by between 40% and 60% among the overall population during seasons when most circulating flu viruses are well-matched to the flu vaccine.

In other words, vaccinations can help prevent you from getting the flu, but they are less than 100% effective in the population.

“Folks that get the flu after vaccination usually still have some partial protection from the immune response that the vaccine triggers,” said Gambla. “So, the feeling is that immunization will at least afford a milder course of illness in patients that do get the flu.”

There are misconceptions about the shot -— and the seriousness of the flu if you get it.

Think the flu ‘isn’t that bad’? Left untreated, influenza can cause serious complications.

“The majority of flu patients recover within two days to two weeks with no long-term complications,” said Gambla. “However, the flu can be quite serious and cause longer term serious issues such as pneumonia, heart, liver, and brain issues.”

The highest risk groups for complications include: infants and children under 5 years old; adults over 65; individuals with chronic heart, lung, kidney, or liver conditions, cancer, HIV, or other conditions that affect immune system function; those who are obese, diabetic, or pregnant; African-American, Hispanic and Native American patients, Gambla said.


The coronavirus presents early flu-like symptoms such as fever, cough, fatigue and sore throat, but often morphs into an illness that attacks the body far more mysteriously and violently than the flu — the 210,000 U.S. coronavirus deaths in its first eight months are more than the last five flu seasons combined. 

With a vaccine for COVID likely not widely available until next spring at the earliest, Gambla said the flu shot is a paramount tool in distinguishing diagnoses and in thwarting what’s being called a potential “twindemic.”

“The early symptoms can be almost identical, so with folks that have had the flu shot, we can zone in on a potential COVID case quicker,” Gambla said.

So how can we tell the differences between the two viruses? According to the CDC, COVID seems to spread more easily, takes longer before people show symptoms and can be contagious for longer than the flu. Loss of taste and smell is a symptom exclusive to COVID.

Both the flu and COVID are known to spread from exposure to droplets from infected people via talking, a sneeze or cough. So, wearing masks and keeping 6 feet apart will help battle both potential outbreaks.

“Until we have a COVID vaccine, the science has been clear and consistent that social distancing and wearing masks is the most effective way to combat this,” Gambla said. “By getting that flu shot and wearing those masks, you’re helping prevent the spread of two viruses at once.”