Recently we spoke with Andrew T. Chan, MD, MPH (@AndyChanMD), lead researcher for the COVID Symptom Study App and SU2C Gastric Cancer Interception Research Team Leader, about the importance of the influenza (flu) vaccine and its impact on patients, especially those that are immunocompromised, cancer survivors, and their loved ones.
What are your recommendations for immunocompromised patients in regards to protecting their health during the COVID-19 pandemic, and as we move into flu season?
As we head into flu season, now more than ever, people must be vigilant about taking precautions to minimize their risk of acquiring of both the flu and COVID-19. This begins by practicing what we know works in virus prevention: washing your hands, avoiding large crowds, social distancing, wearing masks in public, staying away from others if you feel sick, and getting the flu vaccine if you are over six months old. These behaviors must continue because it will ultimately help protect you and others, especially those who may be immunocompromised, including patients and their families.
Why is getting the flu vaccine this year important for patients, survivors, and their loved ones?
All people living with cancer, especially immunocompromised patients, survivors, and their caregivers need to get the vaccine as soon as possible to help minimize their risk of getting the flu. It is equally essential for even individuals who are not in close contact with people living with cancer to get the vaccine now to help reduce the spread of flu in our communities.
When is the ideal time for people to get the flu vaccine?
While we don’t yet know when flu season will peak, and where the virus will be most prevalent, it’s best to get the vaccine right now since we don’t know exactly when the flu season will strike.Of course, over time the protection offered by the flu vaccine may wane, so it is worth talking to your doctor about what to do if the season persists longer than expected.
Are cancer patients and survivors more likely to get the flu than others?
Cancer patients and survivors with compromised immune systems are more likely to develop worsening symptoms, less able to effectively fight an infection, and more prone to develop complications after being infected. This is why everyone needs to get the flu vaccine this year and do everything they can to protect themselves and their community.
What are the key differences between COVID-19 and the flu?
This is an area we are studying through the COVID Symptom Study App. We know some symptoms are more specific to COVID-19 than the flu, such as the loss of taste and smell. On the other hand, flu symptoms seem to be more commonly associated with nasal congestion and a stuffy nose. However, there are some shared symptoms which may make it hard to tell them apart.
Understanding the key differences between the two viruses is something we hope to tease out over the next few weeks based on what communities are reporting, and the symptoms they are experiencing, to help distinguish the flu from COVID-19.
What should someone do if they think they might have COVID-19 or the flu?
It is likely that people may have symptoms that could be due to both infections. The good news is that we now have tests for both viruses, and the bottlenecks we faced in testing for COVID-19 earlier in the pandemic have somewhat improved.
If you believe you may have either the flu or COVID-19, we recommend isolating and getting in touch with your doctor about what steps to take regarding testing.
How can tracking COVID-19 using the COVID Symptom Study App help fight the pandemic this winter?
The COVID Symptom Study App captures symptoms of COVID-19 so we can identify hotspots of the virus. In the same way, our app can be utilized to track the flu and predict outbreaks as well. This is why it is so important for people, whether they have cancer or not, and whether they feel well or not, to log how they feel through the COVID Symptom Study App.
How close do you believe we are to having effective treatments for COVID-19 that will help reduce hospitalization and risk for immunocompromised patients?
I’m heartened by the progress currently being made in developing promising treatments for COVID-19 and the speed at which scientists are working to develop tests and therapeutics. Although researchers are working as fast as they can, we are also not taking short cuts, so it will take some patience before these come to fruition. I’m hopeful that more treatments will be available to reduce the risk of hospitalization within the next several months, but it is not easy to predict exactly when they will be ready.
Is there any evidence that mask-wearing, social distancing, and getting the flu vaccine may reduce the spread of the flu this year?
There is clear evidence that wearing a mask and washing your hands is an effective means of prevention for any respiratory virus. There is also evidence that getting the flu vaccine minimizes your risk for flu as well. In 2020, as a result of mask-wearing, social distancing, and the flu vaccine, we have seen remarkably low influenza rates in the Southern Hemisphere during their winter flu season, which occurs during our summer months. This is solid proof that these non-pharmacological interventions can make a difference in making our flu season much more manageable.
Now is the time to stand together, practice prevention, and get the flu vaccine. By doing so, we will minimize the risk of the flu for ourselves, our loved ones, our communities.
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