Dr. Richard Van Enk, epidemiologist and director of infection prevention at Bronson Healthcare, is sort of West Michigan’s version of Dr. Anthony Fauci.  Like Fauci, he’s been fighting COVID-19 on the front lines for many months but is taking some time this week to also talk about this year's flu season and why it's so critical to get vaccinated this year.

“It’s more important this year than other years because of the other things that are going on, particularly the COVID-19 Pandemic.   The initial stages and symptoms of COVID and the Flu are very similar. If you get sick, your doctor and you can’t tell what you have until you get tested.”

Dr. Van Enk says getting a flu vaccine can take the pressure off our health care systems.   “Any way we can reduce the ‘background noise’ of infectious diseases in the community, like flu which happens every year, we can focus on COVID, that’s a good thing.”  Dr. Van Enk says the last thing we need right now is to have two epidemics going on at the same time.  “If we can take flu out of the picture, then we only have to deal with COVID.  Hospitals have only so many beds, so many doctors and nurses, so many ICU beds, so many ventilators, and so on.  If those recourses are being taken up with unnecessary flu cases, because those cases are vaccine-preventable, then those recourses are not available for other things.”

Because the symptoms of COVID-19 and flu are so similar, another reason to get the flu shot is to minimize the impact on families, co-workers, and businesses.  If someone comes down with the flu, it could result in quarantines and shutdowns while waiting for test results.

Dr. Van Enk says at this point, just about everyone in the United States who is not a little baby should get the flu vaccine. “There are a few people who, for medical reasons that you might want to delay. If you’re getting treatment for something you might delay, but there’s almost no one in the whole country who should not get a flu shot eventually, depending on other things that are going on in their medical care.”

Dr. Van Enk says if someone does have flu-like symptoms, they should call their doctor first, and fast.  “Your physician knows you the best, and what’s normal for you. They also know your history and your risk factors.”  He says the doctor can determine if treatment should begin immediately, or if a healthy person with mild symptoms could just watch and wait.

With so many scientists busy trying to work on a COVD-19 vaccine, we asked Dr. Van Enk if that might have an impact on the development of this year’s flu shot.  “That’s a great question.  At this point, most of the COVID vaccines are new and different from influenza technology.   So basically, those scientists and technicians who are working on flu, and the production facilities, are different than the COVID labs. On the production level, I think the flu vaccine is made the same way with the same level of quality this year as it always has been.”

For more info on getting your flu shot, click here.

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