Suman Radhakrishna, Director Of Infectious Diseases

Dignity Health California Hospital Medical Center

The flu season, typically from November to March or April, is fast approaching. And getting a flu shot this year is more important than ever because of the ongoing health pandemic created by the coronavirus.

Doctors and county health officials say it is possible to be infected with both influenza and the COVID-19 virus. Even though they are caused by different viruses, both are contagious respiratory illnesses and can circulate among people.

“[This flu season] kind of overlaps with the coronavirus,” said Dr. Suman Radhakrishna, MD, an infectious disease physician and the director of Infection Control at the Dignity Health California Hospital in downtown Los Angeles. 

“If every one of us thought of this as a civic duty and diligently practiced getting vaccinated, wearing a mask and keep the six-feet space, we will have an easier flu season and reduce COVID. If we don’t do it right, we’re in trouble. We do this right, then our influenza season should be easier — which is what we want,” she said.

Radhakrishna, a respected authority on influenza, said that while there are flu vaccines, and they would provide an added layer of protection, the public must also continue wearing masks outside the home, and practice social distancing in addition to getting vaccinated since this year you can become infected with both.

Plain and simple, Radhakrishna said, this flu season is not the time for the public to let its collective guard down.

“If you are well, wear a mask if you have to be around other people,” she said. “If you have a choice and can work from home, please do that — it reduces the risk. I know this is hurting people’s pocketbooks and is hurting them psychologically; this isolation is affecting everyone. But you’ve got to hang in there. The longer we mess around by not doing it right, the longer this is going to drag itself out. I think it’s time each one of us steps up and says, ‘we’ve got to do this right.’”

The latest data from the county health department supports Radhakrishna’s and other physicians concerns, especially with the coronavirus.

COVID-19 — which still has no vaccine — remains a “significant threat,” according to Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer. More than 261,000 cases had been reported in LA county as of Monday, Sept, 21, with nearly 6,400 deaths. The mortality rate (per 100,000), according to the county data, is highest among Latinos (90%) and African Americans (65%).

“The difference between now and the early months of the pandemic is that we have a much better idea of how to effectively protect each other from becoming infected,” Ferrer said. “Given the reality that as many as 50% of those infected are able to transmit the virus to others may have no symptoms, taking universal precautions in every interaction with others who are not in your household, is absolutely essential.”

But both the flu and COVID-19 by themselves can place a big burden on your immune system. Getting one illness may put you at a higher risk for getting sick with something else. And both flu and COVID-19 make other diseases like diabetes, heart disease, asthma or HIV, worse and more difficult to control.

All protections and safe, societal practices are needed this fall and winter, Radhakrishna said, because influenza and COVID-19 are essentially transmitted the same way; via droplets left in the air when an infected person sneezes, coughs, speaks or sings, and the droplets enter the body of a non-infected person. The droplets — which are not necessarily visible to the naked eye — can linger in the air and travel up to six feet.

“If they’re in the air and somebody walks into that space, they can inhale them. If they go into your body, you can potentially get infected,” Radhakrishna said. “But if a person is wearing a mask, it can muzzle how far they go forward. If the other person also wears a mask and is six feet away, the [risk] drops significantly.”

A popular misconception about flu shots, the doctor said, is that they work immediately once injected into the body. Another is that the shot itself will make people sick.

“[The vaccine] induces your body to produce antibodies. And it takes time; two to three weeks,” Radhakrishna said. “Your body sees the vaccine, realizes it’s something foreign it has to fight against, and it starts churning out antibodies. The more it churns out the better it gets, and then you get to a level that is high enough where it is protective. But don’t expect the vaccine to work right away.

“The common thing I hear from individuals who don’t want to take the vaccine is ‘last time I got the vaccine and I still got sick.’ You may have been incubating a virus and the vaccine could not muster enough response in a short period of time. The vaccine itself is an inactivated virus; it cannot cause an infection. It may cause people to feel a little tired or have a sore shoulder — but nothing more than that. If they fell sick, it’s because they were already incubating whatever it was,” she said.

Another thing making it difficult for people to trust health guidelines and recommendations from public health agencies is the mixed signals being sent from said organizations, particularly on the coronavirus.

On Sept. 18, the national Centers for Disease Controls and Prevention (CDC) posted a guideline change on its website saying people could get COVID-19 from inhaling tiny particles from an infected person’s breath that linger or travel by air, and that there is growing evidence that droplets and airborne particles can remain suspended in the air and be breathed in by others, and travel distances beyond 6 feet — something doctors say they have known for months.

But on Monday, Sept. 21, the CDC removed that information from its website. It was suspected that the health organization was being pressured politically to remove the information; CDC officials claim that the policy change had been posted by mistake and without a thorough review by its own experts.

It does not help the credibility of  CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield, a Trump appointee, that the president himself has said he “always wanted to play down” the pandemic, whose death total nationwide has now passed 200,000.

“I don’t want to politicize this anymore,” Radhakrishna said. “What I tell myself, my family and my patients — and anyone else who is willing to listen — is there are policy issues and then there is us. At the end of the day, my health is dependent on how I take care of myself.”

But, she added, “This has gone on long enough. [The coronavirus] started around November or December last year…As human beings we all need to sit down and make a resolve to do our part. And then it can be history.”