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The COVID-19 pandemic has created lots of unknowns this year — and the upcoming flu season is no exception.

Here’s what UW Medicine employees need to know to prepare for this flu season, including information about symptoms, testing, the vaccine and where to get your flu shot.

COVID-19 vs. the flu

One thing is for certain: Influenza and COVID-19 symptoms are difficult to discern.

“It’s going to be extremely hard to differentiate between these two illnesses,” says John Lynch, MD, MPH, medical director of Harborview Medical Center’s infection control & prevention and employee health programs. “There are some differences, such as the flu doesn’t typically present with a headache or with anosmia, the loss of smell and taste. But with symptoms like coughing, fatigue and fever — that happens with influenza and COVID-19.”

So, if you or a patient presents with symptoms, what course of action should be taken?

“We are still working on figuring out the best way to go about testing people, but it is very likely that if someone does come in for a COVID-19 test that we will also test that person for influenza,” says Lynch. “This will obviously depend on whether or not influenza is circulating in the community.”

And the most effective way to limit the spread of the flu throughout the community is to get a vaccine.

If you do get sick with an acute respiratory infection, it is important that you stay home from work and call your manager to let them know. More information can be found in the COVID-19 FAQ for employees.

Why getting a flu vaccine is so important

While every flu season is different, it remains true that getting an annual flu vaccination is the best way to prevent getting sick with influenza. For instance, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that in the 2017-18 flu season, flu vaccinations prevented 6.2 million influenza illnesses, 91,000 influenza-associated hospitalizations and 5,700 flu-associated deaths.

Lynch emphasizes the value of the flu vaccine: “The flu vaccine definitely decreases your risk of getting the flu. Period.”

The flu vaccine is reviewed annually and updated as needed to match circulating flu viruses. Flu vaccines protect against strains that research suggests will be most common. But what if this year’s flu vaccine is not effective for a particular strain of the flu that ends up circulating?

“There’s always some level of protection, even when we have a mismatch,” explains Lynch. “Even though it’s not perfect, it’s still the most powerful tool we have.”

And while preventing the flu is always important, in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s even more critical that we do everything possible to reduce illness and preserve healthcare resources.

“Not only is influenza dangerous for the very young, the very old and people with comorbidities, if people have flu symptoms we will likely need to test them, which is going to create additional work for the system,” says Lynch.

On top of that, while it is currently unknown what would happen if a person were to get the flu and COVID-19 at the same time, Lynch thinks it could severely compromise their health.

“If it does occur, I suspect that it will be a problem for the patient as they now have two potentially life-threatening respiratory tract infections,” says Lynch. “We also have no idea how the two viruses interact.”

Even more reason to get a vaccine.

Where to get your flu vaccine

UW Medicine offers the flu vaccine to all clinical employees. If you’d like to receive your flu shot at work, look out for information on when and how to get your flu shot from your work location.

Faculty and staff enrolled in UW-provided PEBB health plans (Uniform Medical and Kaiser), as well as graduate students enrolled in the Graduate Appointee Insurance Program (GAIP), can also get a flu shot at one of The Whole U’s annual in-person flu shot clinics, offered at a variety of locations. Register for a time slot by searching the list of clinics on the 2020 Clinic Schedule.

Other ways get your flu shot include making an appointment at a primary care clinic, walking into a UW Medicine urgent care location or visiting your local pharmacy.

If you use your health insurance to obtain a flu vaccine, you can email Employee Health and submit a record or attest to the date and place where you received your flu vaccine. All clinical employees are required to get a flu vaccine unless they get a medical exemption or formally decline.

“The best place is the place that you have easy access to,” says Lynch. “Our goal is to get the vaccine to every single healthcare worker.”