Flu season adds risk as Covid-19 cases increase across the state

Covid-19 cases are rising as the pandemic collides with flu season. Health experts explain distinguishing symptoms and disparities among race and age groups.

With the 2020-21 flu season in full effect, Covid-19 continues to infect individuals at an alarming rate, including in Mecklenburg County.

As of Oct. 20, Mecklenburg County had 31,960 laboratory-confirmed Covid-19 cases. The county health department reported an average of 177 laboratory-confirmed infections the past week, representing an increase from the previous 14-day average of 138 confirmed infections.

Gov. Roy Cooper announced Thursday that North Carolina saw its highest single-day record of Covid-19 cases since the pandemic began in March. Friday’s 2,684 new cases beat the previous single-day record, the state Department of Health and Human Services reported. Across the state, Covid-19 cases totaled 248,750 as of Tuesday. 

“We are moving in the wrong direction,” N.C. DHHS Secretary Mandy Cohen said. “The increase is a warning that there is more viral spread happening across our state.”

Cooler temperatures ushered in flu season, and state health officials reported the first flu-related death. It occurred during the week of Oct. 4-10 involving a person who was 65 or older. 

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In 2019, the flu claimed the lives of 186 North Carolinians. To date, Covid-19 alone has killed 377 people in Mecklenburg County.

Is it Covid-19 or the flu?

The flu and Covid-19 share similar symptoms, especially in the early stages, Atrium Health’s Chairman of Emergency Medicine and Vice President of Research Dr. Michael Gibbs said. Working in emergency medicine at the onset of the pandemic, Gibbs and other doctors around the country diagnosed patients with influenza, but they had Covid-19. 

“We’ve encountered a lot of these patients since March, and we’ve made mistakes,” Gibbs admitted. 

A vital difference between the contagious respiratory illnesses is that influenza has a vaccine and Covid-19 doesn’t. To help develop strategies and treatments for Covid-19, Atrium Health and Wake Forest Baptist Health partnered to launch the first and only Covid-19 Community Research Partnership in the Southeast region. 

The voluntary research study provides short online surveys about possible Covid-19 exposures, symptoms and health care visits to Atrium Health patients and employees. A subset of patients will also receive an antibody test kit in the mail every other month to complete at home and send back to the study site.

“As the citizens of Charlotte participate in the study by tracking their symptoms, it’s almost like they’re contributing to the solution,” Gibbs said. “This information that we’re getting in real-time will impact our ability to be nimble and to respond to Covid-19 as the pandemic evolves.”

Disparities in Black and Hispanic communities 

Gibbs and Atrium Health Director of Health Services Research Dr. Yhenneko Taylor want people of all races and socioeconomic classes to participate in the study but recognize that Covid-19 is disproportionately affecting minorities, especially those in Black and Hispanic communities.  

Black people are 2.6 times, and Hispanic people are 2.8 times, more at risk of contracting Covid-19 compared to other races, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Black people are also 2.1 times more at risk of dying from Covid-19.

“We don’t have enough people from those communities [participating in the study] to be able to make conclusions about what’s happening,” Taylor told QCity Metro. 

The North Carolina Institute of Medicine’s Vaccine Advisory Committee is working together with the state to create a Covid-19 Vaccination Plan.   

Art Apolinario, a family medicine physician at Clinton Medical Clinic and board member of the North Carolina Medical Society, said his patients taught him about the mistrust non-white communities have for the current health care system. As a result, racial disparities and equity in the delivery of care are at the forefront of the Covid vaccine decision-making process, according to Apolinario.

“We had stakeholders at the table to make sure we made unbiased decisions,” Apolinario shared. “Our work was independent, free of political bias, open to all opinions and strictly adhered to data and science as the main tenets for good decision.”

Preventing Covid-19 and the flu

Gibbs thinks communities may be ahead of the curve this flu season because people are already wearing face masks, helping to prevent the spread of both illnesses. Other safety measures include hand-washing and social distancing.

“We’re hoping that people will be diligent about wearing masks through the rest of the winter and into the spring during the exposure to influenza,” he said.

Gibbs said since doctors can now test for Covid-19 and influenza simultaneously, distinguishing the two illnesses has become easier.

Gov. Cooper, N.C. DHHS Secretary Cohen and health officials have advised that all North Carolinians get flu vaccines to prevent the spread of influenza. The CDC also recommends that everyone 6 months and older get a seasonal flu vaccine every year. 

Covid-19 and the flu’s effects on older adults 

Like the flu, people above the age of 65 with Covid-19 are more susceptible to getting severely ill or dying. Eight out of 10 Covid-related deaths reported in the U.S. have been adults age 65 and older, the CDC found. Mecklenburg County Public Health reported on Oct. 14 that almost all residents who died from Covid-19 were 60 and older. 

The CDC says the two vaccines designed specifically for people 65 and older are high-dose flu and adjuvanted flu vaccines. Both vaccines promote a stronger immune response and help older adults fight off influenza. 

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