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California Healthcare Worker First to Get Flu, COVID Simultaneously

November 02, 2020

Perhaps it was only a matter of time, but a California healthcare worker recently became the first person to be diagnosed with both seasonal flu and COVID-19 at the same time.

Still, Dr. Faiqa Cheema, assistant director of general infectious disease with Hartford Hospital, part of Hartford HealthCare, said it is too early to know how common such co-infection will be in this unprecedented pandemic. Overlap of COVID-19 and the last flu season was very minimal in March and this year’s flu season has just begun.

“At this time, we do not have clear numbers of COVID and flu co-infection,” said Dr. Cheema. “Health experts globally are worried about a COVID-flu ‘twindemic,’ but are hopeful that standard COVID-19 preventive measures such as masks, physical distancing and regular hand hygiene could have a positive impact on the upcoming influenza season.”

The impact of COVID-related measures tempered the seasonal flu season in the southern hemisphere this year and officials hope the same will be the case here this winter.

Dr. Cheema added that it is also critical for people to be vaccinated against seasonal flu this year, even those who ordinarily skip the vaccine. Not only will this hopefully prevent onset of the flu in more individuals, but it will help stem flu-related hospitalizations, preserving hospital capacity for extremely ill COVID-19 patients.

Flu vaccination will not prevent COVID-19 infection, but Dr. Cheema said it is an important way to avoid the seasonal flu and stay as healthy as possible at this time of year.

“Being infected with one could make you more susceptible to the other,” she said of flu and COVID-19. “It can also make one more vulnerable to getting other respiratory viruses that are usually circulating in the winter season such as parainfluenza, RSV (respiratory syncytial virus) and adenovirus. These can also be very deadly.”

Co-infection by both COVID-19 and flu viruses severely compromises the lungs and increases the need for artificial ventilation that could include intubation and use of a respirator. It can also pose a challenge for healthcare systems that will need to isolate and cohort such patients, Dr. Cheema said.

Both seasonal flu and COVID-19 are respiratory diseases, with the latter being much more contagious. Both can also be lethal for vulnerable people like the elderly and those with compromised immune systems. Good general health is not enough protection against the viruses, however. The co-infected California patient is under the age of 65 and in relatively good health, but had not had a flu shot.

It’s also important to note that the flu vaccine takes approximately two weeks to be effective, so getting one soon is advised, especially as the second wave of COVID-19 picks up rapidly.

Hartford HealthCare offers flu clinics across the state. For more information, click here.