‘The waters are about to get much muddier’: VCU doctor shares concerns as flu season collides with COVID-19


RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — It’s that time of year once again. In the U.S., between 50,000 and 70,000 people die from the flu in every year. But this time, flu season has company. VCU infectious disease Dr. Jeff Donowitz told 8News that medical professionals get a “surge” of flu patients every year, but whether our facilities will over-crowd this year, he says, depends on us.

“There’s a way for this not to be a perfect storm. Every day citizens making hard choices to limit social interaction,” Dr. Donowitz said. 

The weather is quickly cooling off. He says indoor gatherings are now even more of a concern. “I think the risk locally is wintertime,” he said. People moving indoors, people giving up when it comes to social distancing and mask wearing.”

He said his largest concern is the lack of available rapid testing, diagnosis and being able to identify if a person has the coronavirus or the flu. “There’s going to be a diagnostic dilemma this season,” he told 8News. “The waters are about to get much muddier on that topic. Without good, rapid testing, that has quick turnaround times and is accurate, we’re in for a challenge.”

Donowitz said because of VCU Health’s size and academic medical center status, they are able to identify the virus quicker and more accurately than some other medical centers. “The issue is gonna come much more for ER’s and hospitals that don’t have the same laboratory capacity.”

Some doctors nationally predict this flu season won’t be as bad as other seasons because countries in the southern hemisphere, like Australia and New Zealand, which have an earlier flu season than ours, is reporting low flu numbers when compared to other tears. Also, doctors say good practices like mask wearing and sanitizing already in place will help stop the flu from spreading. However, Dr. Donowitz doesn’t completely agree that a mild season is automatically in our future. “The really good data comes from places like Australia and New Zealand… that are doing a much better job at mask wearing, hand-washing, and social distancing, than we are in the U.S.”

He tells Virginians to stay vigilant. “I would urge people to be strong and to not give in to this magical thinking that it will all just go away.”

People should get the flu shot immediately, according to the doctor. He says rumors still lingering that the flu shot can give you the flu are false. “Impossible,” he said. “The flu shot is an inactive virus.”

Dr. Donowitz said there are many questions he and other scientists can’t yet answer because the data isn’t yet available: How one disease might affect the other if you have both, how the vaccines could affect each other, if having the flu makes you more susceptible to getting COVID, and how effective the COVID-19 vaccine will be, for example. “I think all of that is yet to be determined,” he said.

So when will we get a vaccine?

“I can tell you that there’s absolutely no chance that this is in people’s hands, or in their arms, before the election,” he said. “Getting a vaccine, making sure it’s safe, and then the logistical challenge of actually getting it to market and into the populations at risk is gonna happen at some point in 2021 from what I can tell.”


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