flu shot.jpg

For weeks, state health leaders for weeks have warned of a potential “twindemic” of a bad flu season in tandem with the novel coronavirus outbreak in Louisiana, a combination that could prove especially deadly for the medically vulnerable. 

It's particularly important that the dual storm of influenza and the coronavirus borne-illness COVID-19 be controlled for patients in nursing homes and others at risk of severe complications to avoid further deaths and strains on Louisiana's healthcare system.

State health leaders say it’s more important than ever for people who don't typically get flu shots to get them, especially those who care for the elderly infirm. 

Life-threatening complications from the flu and COVID-19 are more common among older adults, especially those with underlying and chronic health problems.

Though few people die from the flu, deaths linked to it are often the result of the virus worsening underlying health problems and in some cases the virus can lead to fatal heart attacks, strokes or pneumonia.

Dr. Frank Welch, the medical director for the Louisiana Department of Health’s immunization program, said much is still unknown about the impacts both viruses can have on a person if contracted one after another, or worse, at the same time.

"What we really don't know, and an experiment I really don't want to conduct is: What if someone got COVID and the flu in the same year?" he said. "That could put these people who are already at risk for one or the other at a significantly higher risk of nasty complications from that."

Louisiana suffered a particularly harsh flu season last year, which saw some 15,000 people hospitalized and an estimated 1,600 deaths between last August and early this summer, according to the state Department of Health.

Nursing homes across the state have been ravaged by the novel coronavirus, which has seeped through protective measures long-term facilities instituted in March, including restricting visitors and requiring staff to wear protective equipment.

Nearly all of the more than 270 long-term care facilities have reported at least one case — and some have reported much higher outbreaks, according to state data analyzed by The Advocate.

Of the more than 5,700 deaths tied to the virus across the state, roughly 43% of fatal cases were among nursing home residents, a grim figure that highlights the human toll and ease in which viruses can spread within those facilities.

Residents often live in close quarters and have frequent and close contact with workers, making it an ideal place for illnesses to spread. The coronavirus has been even more vexing to keep out of nursing homes because an unknown number of workers can unknowingly spread it to residents without having symptoms.

Many nursing homes have also struggled with infection control practices, and more than half of the state’s nursing homes have been cited for violations to those protocols, according to federal inspection reports. They range from employees failing to wash hands to not properly cleaning and sanitizing medical equipment.

Long-term care workers in nursing homes aren’t required to be vaccinated against the flu in Louisiana, though some states have long made it a requirement, while others have recently made it mandatory for nursing home workers and others caring for the elderly and medically vulnerable.

Here, public health leaders are stressing the benefits and importance for people to get them, especially those who often skip an annual flu shot.

Though long-term care centers have in past years provided flu shots for residents at fairly high rates, state health leaders are also stressing the importance for care and medical workers — as well as the general public — to get vaccinated.

Still, some caregivers in other areas reported far lower participation in flu vaccines.

Only about 68% of people working in long-term personal care services reported getting flu shots last year. Often those workers provide at-home care for people needed assistance with day-to-day activities, such as bathing, dressing and eating, among others.

Since the flu and the coronaviruses spread from person to person mainly through respiratory droplets, Welch said many of the social distancing measures like wearing a mask and physically distancing could also blunt infections.

He points to countries like Australia that reported one of the mildest flu seasons in recent memories and credited social distancing and a greater number of people getting flu shots.

“I certainly hope that happens in Louisiana,” Welch said.

Email Youssef Rddad at yrddad@theadvocate.com, and follow him on Twitter @youssefrddad