With summer quickly nearing its end and autumn just on the horizon, it won’t be long until the cold and flu season grips the United States. While flu activity typically doesn’t peak until around December, healthcare experts are also concerned about what this year’s cold and flu season will look like amidst the global COVID-19 pandemic. Experts are primarily worried because the symptoms of the flu, the common cold and COVID-19 can be very similar. However, there are also mounting concerns because the healthcare community does not know what will happen when a case of the flu hits along with a case of COVID-19.
In the coming months, the cold and flu season will likely make the coronavirus pandemic worse for healthcare professionals and patients alike. Keep reading to learn more about the challenges and how you can protect yourself and your patients by doing something as simple as using antimicrobial laundry detergent.
Recognizing the Symptoms
As mentioned above, the common cold, the flu and COVID-19 share many of the same symptoms. This will, of course, result in an increased number of patients presenting with similar symptoms and make it more challenging to determine whether an individual has a cold, the flu or COVID-19.
It may be a bit easier to diagnose a cold without testing since it commonly causes symptoms like a stuffy nose, sneezing and a sore throat. Differentiating between the flu and COVID-19 will be more challenging, though, as both commonly cause coughing, fever, shortness of breath, headache, fatigue, body and muscle aches and vomiting and/or diarrhea.
Testing patients for suspected cases of the flu and COVID-19 will be vital in the coming months in order to prescribe the appropriate course of treatment. Unfortunately, this means people will need to leave their homes to visit their doctors’ offices and other testing sites rather than staying home and self-isolating. Since this increases the risk of spreading the illness to others–whether it’s the flu or COVID-19–it creates challenges for healthcare providers and increases the risk of community spread.
Increased Strain on Healthcare Providers and Facilities
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Over the last several months, mitigation efforts have helped to slow the spread of the coronavirus. As cold and flu season takes hold in the U.S., however, there will likely be an uptick in the number of patients seeking treatment. While many providers are already feeling exhausted and overworked as a direct result of the pandemic, they may find themselves needing to put in even more hours to keep up with patients who are seeking testing because they are exhibiting symptoms of the flu or COVID-19.
During the cold and flu season, hospital admission rates tend to increase each year. While this is manageable most years, the influx of patients could be much higher this year, resulting in increased healthcare worker fatigue and burnout. Managing mental health for healthcare professionals has already become an important topic in light of COVID-19. As physicians, nurses and other providers are forced to deal with the additional strain of the cold and flu season on top of the challenges they are already facing due to COVID-19, emotional and mental health struggles are likely to become even more prevalent.
Patients Not Taking Illness Seriously
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Testing is currently the best way to differentiate between a cold, the flu and COVID-19. Unfortunately, though, the tests are not foolproof. With false negative rates for COVID-19 tests potentially exceeding 35 percent, it is highly probable the test will show many patients don’t have the virus when they actually do.
This is problematic for healthcare professionals for several reasons.
With many members of the public already feeling over the pandemic and ready to move on with their lives, negative test results provide a sense of security and could make patients feel like they can resume normal activities since they “only” have a cold or the flu. Unfortunately, if the patient received a false negative and actually does have COVID-19, they could end up spreading the illness by choosing not to self-quarantine as they would have if the test had shown a positive result.
In addition, the arrival of the cold and flu season could make some people feel less inclined to get tested in the first place. Coming down with a serious cough (or other symptoms) during the summer is unusual and instantly raises coronavirus concerns. During the cold and flu season, however, coughs and other symptoms of COVID-19 are common. As a result, patients are less likely to assume they’ve contracted the coronavirus and may be less apt to seek testing, self-quarantine, wear a mask in public settings, practice social distancing, etc. Individuals who assume it’s “just a cold” could unwittingly spread the virus to members of their communities. In addition to causing a surge in the number of coronavirus cases, this puts healthcare workers at risk of becoming sick themselves.
In most places, healthcare workers who exhibit symptoms of COVID-19 are not allowed to work with patients for two weeks–even if they test negative for the virus. This is due to the high potential for false positives. Individuals not taking illness seriously during this cold and flu season could result in staffing shortages in healthcare facilities when doctors, nurses and other professionals are not allowed to work because they came down with a cold, the flu or COVID-19.
Healthcare experts are worried about the upcoming cold and flu season, and for good reason. Research regarding coronavirus infections and immune responses is still ongoing, and little is known about what might happen if a patient were to contract COVID-19 and the flu simultaneously. Additionally, healthcare professionals will likely face many challenges this year as patients seek testing, require care or refuse to take steps to avoid spreading illness. This year’s cold and flu season will likely be like no other, so now is a good time to plan, purchase some comfy new jogger scrubs and nursing shoes and gear up for the coming months.