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Flu season is rapidly approaching, and health officials say Spokane County still not past ‘first wave’ of COVID-19

UPDATED: Wed., Sept. 23, 2020

A syringe with influenza vaccine inside heads for its mark during a flu vaccination earliers this year in Texas. Health officials are urging residents to get this year's flu shot.  (LM Otero)
A syringe with influenza vaccine inside heads for its mark during a flu vaccination earliers this year in Texas. Health officials are urging residents to get this year's flu shot. (LM Otero)

It’s officially fall, and health officials are looking toward a potentially bleak next few months with flu season just around the corner as the coronavirus pandemic continues.

“This is not where we wanted to find ourselves going into flu season,” Spokane County Health Officer Dr. Bob Lutz said on Wednesday.

Health officials confirmed 123 cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday alone, a step backward in the progress made since August, when virus activity appeared to be declining.

“People have asked about a second wave, and we haven’t gotten past the first wave,” Lutz said.

This recent COVID surge concerns local health care providers, like Dr. Gretchen LaSalle, a family physician at MultiCare Rockwood who is working both in her clinic as well as occasionally at the MultiCare respiratory clinic, designated for patients with COVID-like symptoms.

“We already talked about our medical infrastructure already being taxed, and we anticipate growing issues in the winter months,” LaSalle said on Wednesday.

“As we see a surge of COVID, handling that in our hospitals and clinics will be difficult enough, but add on top of that a normal flu season …”

LaSalle joined the chorus of health care providers and public health officials asking Washington state residents to get vaccinated for the flu early this year. Flu season typically begins in November and lasts through March or April.

The vaccination, LaSalle said, lasts about six months, so people should plan to get the vaccine ideally before Halloween. After receiving a flu shot, it takes about two weeks for the flu vaccine to become effective.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is making additional doses of the influenza vaccine available to states, Lutz said, and providers do not anticipate running out of supplies.

LaSalle warned that it is possible to get COVID-19 and flu together, and providers saw this at the beginning of the pandemic.

“Even if you’re the healthiest person out there, having those two together could be deadly,” she said.

Influenza can be deadly on its own, too.

In the last decade, the most deadly flu season in the United States on record (2017-18) is estimated to have led to 61,000 deaths, according to the CDC.

COVID-19, however, is more deadly. So far, more than 200,000 U.S. residents have died from the virus, and that toll continues to tick up daily.

In Washington state, COVID-19 has claimed many more lives than an average flu season. The 2017-18 flu season led to 296 Washington deaths.

Thus far in the pandemic, 2,081 Washington residents have died from the coronavirus. Another Spokane County resident has also died from the virus, bringing the total number of local residents who have died from COVID-19 to 160.

Hospitalizations also appear to be on the rise again after dropping in late August. There are 39 COVID-19 patients receiving treatment in Spokane-area hospitals, and 31 of them are county residents.

With COVID-19 and flu symptoms presenting in almost identical ways – fever, cough, shortness of breath, fatigue – providers will have to presume a patient with those symptoms has COVID-19.

“It’s going to be really hard, and this is one of the reasons we want to take as many variables out of the picture as we can,” LaSalle said.

While state health officials believe there are enough personal protective equipment and COVID-19 testing supplies stockpiled for a potential surge this fall and winter, LaSalle has a different concern.

“We’re all pretty worried about manpower,” she said. “We may have the supplies we need, the PPE, but as our staff goes out sick with COVID or other illnesses, having the manpower to handle that surge could be difficult.”

Arielle Dreher's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.

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 (Photo courtesy WAHBE)

Fall means the onset of the cold and flu season.