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UMass Chan infectious disease expert urges flu vaccination to avoid COVID-19 ‘twindemic’

Robert W. Finberg, MD

A UMass Medical School infectious disease specialist is urging people to get vaccinated soon against influenza, as the threat approaches of what has been called a “twindemic,” the annual spike in seasonal flu coinciding this year with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

The flu is a contagious respiratory disease caused by influenza viruses that infect the nose, throat and lungs. Symptoms can look a lot like those of COVID-19, including cough, sore throat, fever, fatigue, difficulty breathing, runny or stuffy nose, body aches, headache and occasionally vomiting and diarrhea. Complications include pneumonia, acute respiratory distress, ear or sinus infections and worsening of chronic medical conditions.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that in the past decade, between 12,000 and 61,000 people have died annually in the U.S. because of complications from influenza. As of late August, more than 180,000 people in the U.S. have died due to COVID-19. Health officials are worried that both severe illnesses occurring at once will overwhelm hospitals and first responders.

Vaccines for the 2020-2021 flu season, which usually picks up in October and can last until May, have begun being distributed, based on the strains of influenza circulating this year in the Southern Hemisphere.

“We don’t want people to get both viruses,” said Robert W. Finberg, MD, the Richard M. Haidack Professor in Medicine and chair and professor of medicine. “There have been some cases of people that could have both and we want to avoid that if possible. We know there’s COVID around and we know the flu is coming. If we can prevent one, we’ll be in much better shape.”

Getting the flu could also make one more susceptible to COVID-19, Dr. Finberg said. Research done at UMMS showed that the receptors for the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which causes COVID-19, may be increased by influenza.

“So if there’s any way we can prevent the flu, we should do that,” he said. “We have an approved vaccine already for the flu, and I’d certainly encourage everyone to use it.”

Finberg said he supported the state’s new policy that influenza immunization will be required for all children 6 months of age or older who are attending Massachusetts child care, pre-school, kindergarten, K-12, and colleges and universities.

The flu vaccine is safe and does not use live virus so it cannot replicate and cause flu infection after it is administered, Finberg noted. Other viruses, including rhinoviruses and respiratory syncytial virus, also circulate in the fall and could cause illness. Experimental studies in which people have been given placebo injections compared to the flu vaccine demonstrate that, aside from a sore arm, the incidence of reported symptoms, which some critics have associated with the vaccine, is the same between the placebo and vaccine treatment groups.

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