State Reports First Flu DeathNov 24, 2020 05:21PM ● By David Dykes
By Liv Osby
While the world is laser focused on the coronavirus, South Carolina reported that a person from the Pee Dee is the first in the state to die from the flu this season.
And state health officials are concerned about the impact the flu could have on patients and health systems alike as the nation faces surging Covid-19 cases, and with the approaching holidays potentially foreshadowing even higher numbers.
“We’re very concerned … that if we have a surge of cases of influenza in addition to coronavirus that our hospitals will be overwhelmed,” said Dr. Jane Kelly, assistant state epidemiologist at the Department of Health and Environmental Control.
“We’re keeping patients with respiratory illness complaints out of our main offices and concentrating on taking care of sick patients at locations where we can take precautions,” she said. “We’re also seeing patients virtually quite a bit now … with flu-like illnesses and referring them on to clinics to be tested.”
Physicians at Bon Secours St. Francis Health System are already seeing patients with the flu, said Dr. Meredith Vejnar of Premier Family Medicine in Greenville.
The incidence of flu increased in the Upstate in the week ending Nov. 13 while it decreased in the Midlands, DHEC reports.
Elsewhere in the state, there was no change from the previous week. “Currently, our capacity is not overburdened,” she added, “but we’re seriously concerned about that will happen after Thanksgiving.”
Testing for the flu is done in the office and takes about five minutes to get results, she said. The PCR test for Covid must be sent to a lab and currently has about a two- to three-day turnaround time, she said, adding that both tests are available at Bon Secours drive-through clinics.
Vejnar said that hospitals and health care workers are already struggling to care for the growing number of coronavirus patients. So when doctors, nurses and therapists get sick and have to quarantine - as well as coping with their long-range symptoms like headache, fatigue and difficulty breathing - it impacts the staff.
Additional patients who are sick with the flu will strain that system even more, she said.
“Things are ramping up,” she said. “And anyone who does have bad complications will overwhelm an already overtaxed health system and fatigued health care workers.”
So far, Kelly said, hospitals in South Carolina haven’t had to turn patients away for routine or elective procedures like other states have.
But there’s a “real fear” that if hospitals are filled with patients suffering from flu and Covid-19, it will impact those suffering a heart attack or other condition, as well as those undergoing chemotherapy for cancer, she said.
“It’s not just a matter of the beds being only 80 percent filled. It’s the clinical staff who treat patients,” Kelly said.
“If half the respiratory therapists are out with Covid-19 or are quarantined, how do you replace those critical skills?” she added. “It’s been a long haul for medical personnel. What can we do to protect those critical workers? Stay out of the hospital. Get your flu vaccine.”
According to Stacker, South Carolina ranks 30th nationwide for flu vaccination.
Kelly attributes this to “vaccine hesitancy” among some people, including those who say they got the flu after being vaccinated.
“We know it cannot give you the flu,” she said. “You may feel fever or achy for a day or two after vaccination. But that’s not the flu. That’s because the vaccine is revving up the immune system.”
Other people may shun flu shots because they’ve heard they’re only 50 percent effective, she said.
“But if it decreased my chances of getting the flu by 50 percent,” she said, “that would be worth it to me to have achiness for one or two days.”
Vejnar said that measures people have been taking to prevent Covid, like wearing a mask and social distancing, could mean a less severe flu season.
On the other hand, she said, fewer people are getting flu shots for various reasons, such as fear of being infected with the coronavirus by going out, which could offset the coronavirus precautions.
Kelly said providers are prepared to protect patients who want to get a flu shot, including at her own pharmacy, where she was allowed her to wait in the car until it was time to be vaccinated.
She added that it’s possible to have both diseases at the same time, and the concern is it will lead to worse disease and more deaths.
“We don’t know if getting a flu vaccine might decrease your chances of getting coronavirus,” she said. “But if you do have the flu, it lowers your resistance to other viruses and bacteria.”
Kelly said it’s possible to have a safe Thanksgiving if people gather in small groups outdoors while distancing and wearing masks.
“People still do not appreciate how it’s possible to transmit the disease when you’re asymptomatic,” she said.
Flu season usually runs from October to May, with a peak between December and February, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Between 3 percent and 11 percent of Americans gets the flu each year, and since 2010, it has killed between 12,000 and 61,000 people a year, CDC reports.
CDC recommends a flu shot for everyone over 6 months old and those in high-risk groups, such as young children, pregnant women, people over 65, and those with chronic health conditions.
Vaccinations are available at DHEC health departments, doctors' offices, clinics, pharmacies, schools and workplaces.