As flu season quickly approaches, Dr. Julie Casani, director and medical director of Student Health Services, describes the challenges medical and public health professionals will face in addressing both the flu and COVID-19 on campus.
According to Casani, during a normal flu season, cases begin in October and November, with an increase around finals and when students return at the start of the spring semester. She said there has not been an increase in flu cases on campus so far.
“If you were to come to see me and say, ‘I have a fever and chills and a little sore throat and just don't feel good’, I'm not going to know if that's flu or COVID until I get the COVID test back,” Casani said. “Even if the flu is positive, I still don't know if you have COVID or not.”
According to Casani, the treatment for the flu and COVID-19 are the same, but the isolation for COVID-19 is more intense than the flu.
Casani said patients who report flu-like and/or COVID-19-like symptoms will be administered a combined point-of-care test that tests for influenza, COVID-19 and respiratory syncytial virus.
“We don't know a lot about COVID, and that is what is scary to me,” Casani said. “This is a weird disease. It's not like the flu. You get the flu, you're done with the flu, and you go on with your life. [With COVID-19], we're seeing heart issues, we're seeing cognitive issues… The other thing is that this disease is a social disrupter. If we get a big outbreak again on campus in the spring, it's going to be very, very disruptive again.”
Cathy Higginbotham, associate director of nursing at Student Health Services, said, with the exception of Tamiflu, which is administered within 24 hours of the onset of flu symptoms, the treatments for COVID-19 and the flu are the same.
“The biggest complication is because not everybody has all the symptoms of COVID,” Higginbotham said. “Right now, the biggest telltale sign seems to be the loss of taste and smell. That would be the one thing that would differentiate whether it would be the flu or not because that's not something that is similar to the flu at all. But not everybody has that [symptom], so it makes it very difficult to diagnose.”
Casani encourages students to schedule a 10-minute appointment with Student Health Services to get their flu vaccination free of charge with health insurance. She said that 2,000 vaccines were purchased by Student Health this year, with the intent to administer the entire supply.
Higginbotham said, in the past four weeks, 900 flu shots have been administered at Student Health, mainly to faculty and staff.
“We offer the flu shot [at every appointment] in the primary care clinic and in gynecology services,” Higginbotham said. “[Students] can also make an appointment online, and we'll still do [flu vaccinations] through the spring semester as well.”
Higginbotham said patients need to be completely honest when reporting all of their symptoms to provide the best treatment and adequately protect Student Health staff.
“Wash your hands and try to [social distance],” Higginbotham said. “Still enjoy each other's friendship, but at a distance. That's the number one. Drink a lot of a lot of fluids...and try to get enough rest because I know it's stressful, especially during exam times, and your immune systems get down when you're tired. Then it's easier for you to catch the flu or COVID. The healthier you keep your body, the better that it'll be in the long run and the less likely for it to spread.”
To learn more or schedule an appointment with Student Health Services, visit their website.