With some cases of the flu already reported locally, including one patient who tested positive for both the flu and the coronavirus, hospitals are preparing for a high volume of patients as the flu season overlaps the COVID-19 pandemic.
Decatur Morgan Hospital spokeswoman Noel Lovelace said the hospital usually sees flu cases from early fall through early spring.
“We have actually already seen a few patients with flu this year. We also have had one patient who is both COVID and flu positive,” Lovelace said.
The hospital had 27 confirmed or suspected COVID-19 patients Friday, including six in intensive care and two on ventilators.
Judy Smith, administrator of the Alabama Department of Public Health Northern District, said there have been cases of the flu in Morgan, Limestone and Lawrence counties, as well as throughout the state.
"There have been some reports across the state, but this has been a trend in recent years to see flu at some levels year round," Smith said. "(I) have received no notice of unusual increases (this fall)."
Smith said the ADPH advises people to get vaccinated against the flu, and that prevention is even more important this year.
“Historically, we have a huge uptick in hospital utilization during flu season, (and) we already have a tremendous uptick in hospital utilization because of COVID," Smith said. "It is imperative that we not overwhelm our hospitals and the capability of care to our citizens for people that are really, really sick as well as for other diseases."
Smith said it’s not clear yet how severe this flu season will be, but the same precautions that help reduce the spread of COVID-19 will likely reduce the spread of the flu.
“One of the things we’re hoping that is really going to help us this year is the same things we’re doing, the masking and distancing, to protect people from COVID. (That) should be helping us with the flu also,” she said.
With both COVID-19 and the flu in circulation, there are increased health risks — Smith said lingering health effects caused by catching either COVID-19 or the flu can lead to more significant complications or death if someone gets sick a second time.
“Anything that reduces or weakens body resistance or decreases immunity opens the door for a stronger attack from a second condition,” she said. “If injury or damage (is done) to the respiratory system, the second attack can be even more detrimental. It’s important to remember people die from both alone — a knock down after a previous knock down can render a knockout.”
Lovelace said both COVID and the flu are respiratory illnesses caused by “highly contagious, but different, viruses.” She said it’s hard to know which illness a patient has without testing because they have similar symptoms.
“We are anticipating a heavy inpatient volume of flu this fall and will likely treat all as 'COVID Presumptive Positive' until negative test results are received. We are now able to run COVID tests in-house, which will enable us to rule out COVID faster,” she said.
Flu vaccines will be available at a drive-thru clinic on Oct. 20 at Central Baptist Church, 2801 U.S. 31 South, Decatur.
The Morgan County Health Department is holding the clinic and will offer vaccines from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., or until the clinic runs out of vaccines. Vaccines are $5 or free with a Medicare card.
Flu shots are also available at local retail stores and pharmacies.
“It is more important than ever that members of our community get their flu shots,” Lovelace said.