What You Need to Know About COVID-19 and Flu Season

Sarah Sullivan
October 23rd, 2020 September 29th, 2020 |
Read time: 14 minutes

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Flu season occurs each year in the fall and winter in the United States, typically peaking between December and January.[1] That means it’s time to start thinking about flu prevention, including a flu shot.

During this year’s flu season we’re also contending with the ongoing COVID-19 epidemic.

In this blog post, we’ll specifically address COVID-19 and the flu season so that you can be informed and prepared. We’ll find out:

  • What experts are predicting about COVID-19 and the flu
  • How COVID-19 and the flu are similar and different
  • Answers to common questions about COVID-19 and the flu
  • Which health insurance options can help with COVID-19 and the flu

For more information about flu season, prevention, and insurance to help with the costs of treatment and immunization, check out the blog post, “Does Insurance Cover Flu Shots – And Other Flu Season Answers.”

What Experts Predict About COVID-19 and Flu Season

So far, the general consensus among experts is that there’s a lot we don’t know, however, two potential scenarios have emerged as possibilities, either:

  • Concurrent epidemics and a potential large-scale COVID “second wave” makes flu season exponentially worse, or
  • The behaviors we’ve adopted to slow the spread of COVID also help reduce the spread of the flu virus[2]

There is some precedent for the latter scenario. Public health measures implemented in Hong Kong as a response to coronavirus, including border restrictions, quarantine/isolation, social distancing, masking, and hand-washing led to a rapid decline in flu activity.[3]

A similar phenomenon has been reported in countries in southern hemispheres who are just coming off of their flu season. But healthcare officials caution that it’s not clear whether the reduced incidence is because of successful mitigation strategies, or if flu patients are simply staying out of overcrowded hospitals or being incorrectly diagnosed with COVID-19 rather than the flu.[4]

Unfortunately, since there’s been no large-scale federal response to slow the spread of COVID-19 in the US, we cannot count on the best-case scenario, and should prepare for the worst.[5]

Primary COVID-19 Challenges This Flu Season

U.S. healthcare workers are bracing for a “perfect storm”, outlining some critical concerns for this year’s flu season.

First, there’s the potential of concurrent epidemics overwhelming already overtaxed emergency and intensive care units (ICUs) at hospitals.[6]

Second, a lack of widely available, rapid COVID-19 testing could cause patients to receive delayed, ineffective or even harmful treatment since COVID-19 and influenza have similar symptoms but require different treatment protocols.[7]

Additionally, without test results, it’s possible for people to mistakenly believe they have the flu when they are actually infected with COVID-19. That could result in spreading the virus to others if they don’t take the necessary COVID-19 mitigation steps like self-quarantining.[8]

Now that we’ve gotten some insight into the experts’ predictions and concerns, let’s compare how COVID-19 and the flu are different.

How Are COVID-19 and the Flu Different?

Influenza and COVID-19 are both considered contagious infectious respiratory illnesses. However, they are caused by different viruses:

  • COVID-19 is caused by a new coronavirus called SARS-CoV-2 virus
  • The seasonal flu is caused by any number of influenza viruses[9]

Since COVID-19 is a new (novel) coronavirus, there’s still much that healthcare providers and health officials are learning. One thing most healthcare providers and officials do agree on is that COVID-19 and the flu are not the same.

Transmission + Infection

While both illnesses are transmitted through inhaled respiratory droplets in the air or by direct contact with infected surfaces (less so with COVID-19),[10] COVID-19 is more contagious than the flu.[11] One of the reasons for this may be how quickly symptoms become apparent.

A person with the flu is asymptomatic with the potential to infect others for about one day before they realize they’re sick.[12] When it comes to COVID-19, patients remain asymptomatic for a “prolonged period of time” with a viral load similar to that of symptomatic patients – meaning asymptomatic carriers of the virus are able to infect others even though they don’t have symptoms of illness.[13]

And that can result in a large number of infected people since it’s believed that individuals have the ability to transmit COVID-19 for about 10 days. As a result, health officials generally recommend people that suspect or test positive for COVID-19 self-isolate for 14 days even if they’re asymptomatic.[14]

Symptoms

There are a number of overlapping flu and coronavirus symptoms so it may be easy to mistake COVID-19 for the flu in milder cases. However, two symptoms seem to be unique to COVID-19: shortness of breath or difficulty breathing, and new loss of taste or smell.

Common flu and COVID-19 symptoms:

Flu Symptoms[15]

  • Fever (not everyone with the flu will have a fever)
  • Chills, Cough, Sore throat
  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Muscle, body aches
  • Headaches
  • Fatigue
  • Vomiting, diarrhea (more common in children)

 

Covid-19 Symptoms[16]

  • Fever
  • Chills, Cough, Sore throat
  • Congestion or runny nose
  • Muscle, body aches
  • Headaches
  • Fatigue
  • Nausea or vomiting, diarrhea
  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
  • New loss of taste or smell

The only way to know for sure whether you have the flu or COVID-19 is to get tested for the viruses that cause one or both diseases.

The CDC has developed a test that will check for both A and B type seasonal flu viruses and SARS CoV-2 (the virus that causes coronavirus).[17]

Duration of Illness + Potential for Long-Term Organ Damage

Illness duration may also be a key difference between the seasonal flu and COVID-19.

Flu symptoms typically last for 5-7 days, sometimes fewer if you’ve had a flu shot.[18]

Up to one-third of COVID-19 patients who were never sick enough to be hospitalized and who were otherwise in good health, were ill for up to three weeks after being diagnosed. Some experienced debilitating symptoms for months after initial infection.[19]

Additionally, while the seasonal flu can result in health complications like pneumonia, sinus or ear infections, and exacerbate existing chronic health conditions like congestive heart failure, asthma or diabetes[20] it’s generally not associated with long-term or irreversible organ damage.

However, experts now suspect that serious COVID-19 infections may result in new long-term damage to organs. In addition to lung damage, affected organs include the brain (seizures or Guillain-Barre syndrome) and heart (increased risk for future heart disease).[21]

Some of the key findings and statistics so far include:

  • 46% of COVID-19 patients in one study with no pre existing heart disease had abnormal echocardiograms and 13% had severe disease.[22]
  • 40-60% of hospitalized COVID-19 patients in another study experienced neurological and psychiatric symptoms such as ischaemic stroke, brain hemorrhage, new-onset psychosis and dementia.[23]
  • Pneumonia associated with COVID-19 tends to be more severe, affecting both lungs, and more frequently leading to acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS, a form of lung failure) which may require ventilator support and result in death or lasting pulmonary scarring.[24]

It remains to be seen whether or not the severity and duration of COVID-19 symptoms and complications, including organ damage, can be reduced as better treatment protocols are developed. But as it stands today COVID-19 infection may come with the potential for more serious long-term health complications than does the seasonal flu in severe cases.[25]

Treatment Costs

Hospitalization costs can be quite a bit higher for COVID-19 than for the flu.

Flu: The average total cost of inpatient admission for pneumonia in 2018 was between $9,763 (no complications) and $20,292 (major complications).[26]

COVID-19: According to one recent study the national median hospital charge for a COVID-19 patient ranged from $34,662 (23-30 age group) to $45,683 (51-60 age group).[27]

Rate of Death and Total Deaths

Finally, COVID-19 is more deadly than the flu. The death rate from COVID-19 as reported by the CDC is 5.2%, significantly higher than the seasonal flu at .1%.[28]

As of the publication of this blog post, over 201,000 Americans have died due to COVID-19 during an approximately 7-month timeframe (Mar. – Sep. 2020).[29]

By comparison, it’s estimated that last year’s flu season resulted in 24,000 to 62,000 deaths over a six-month timeframe (Oct. 2019 to Apr. 2020).[30]

Now that we’ve covered some of the main differences between COVID-19 and the flu, let’s address some questions you may have as we go into the first potential “co-epidemic” season in recent memory.

Can You Get COVID-19 and the Flu at the Same Time?

Yes, it is possible to contract both COVID-19 and the flu simultaneously, though studies so far indicate that the risk of coinfection is low.[31]

According to Michael Osterholm, founder and director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, chances are much more likely a person either has COVID-19 or the flu, with only about 3-4% of the population infected with COVID-19, while 10-20% might become infected with the flu virus, so the odds of being infected with both (simultaneously) are small.[32]

There are a couple of other respiratory viruses to be aware of that also circulate during the flu season and cause symptoms similar to the flu, including rhinovirus (aka the common cold), and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), the most common cause of severe respiratory illness in young children.[33]

Are You More Likely to Develop Serious Flu Complications After Having COVID-19?

So far, medical experts have not indicated that previously being infected with COVID-19 increases a person’s risk of experiencing more serious flu illness or complications.

The kinds of factors that are currently known to increase risk for flu complications are:

  • Being age 65 or older or under 2 years old
  • Having underlying health conditions like asthma, blood disorders, and chronic lung and kidney disease
  • People with weakened immune systems
  • People that have had a stroke[34]

See a more detailed list of risk factors (CDC).

Can a Flu Shot Protect You From COVID-19?

The flu shot will not protect you from being infected with COVID-19. However, researchers are citing some potential positive associations between the flu shot and COVID-19 health outcomes:

  • Influenza vaccination in the 65+ population is associated with lower COVID-19 mortality.
  • COVID-19 patients who had been recently immunized against the flu fared better in their disease recovery and had, on average: 8% lower chance of needing intensive care, 18% lower chance of needing invasive respiratory support (ventilator), 17% lower chance of death.[35]

Does the Flu Shot Increase Your Risk of Contracting COVID-19?

There is no evidence that the seasonal flu vaccine increases your risk of becoming infected with coronavirus.[36] The coronavirus is mainly spread through person-to-person contact via respiratory droplets in the air.[37]

So any behaviors that increase your likelihood of sharing air with another person could increase your chances of being infected or infecting others. These types of behaviors include:

  • Being within 6 feet of others, especially indoors
  • Being in large groups
  • Not wearing a facial covering over your mouth and nose[38]

Can You Get a COVID-19 Vaccine This Year?

It’s not likely you’ll be able to get a COVID-19 vaccine this year.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the US’s top infectious disease expert, expects to be able to identify a safe and effective vaccine by November or December 2020.[39]

However, that doesn’t mean that’s when the vaccine will be available to the majority of the US population.

With a complex supply chain; significant challenges to overcome for storing, handling and administering the doses; and an immunization priority order (e.g, vaccinating frontline healthcare providers, first responders and people at a higher risk for severe disease first), the average American likely won’t have access to the vaccine until sometime in 2021.[40]

Health Insurance, Other Products to Help During Flu Season

Remember, ACA annual open enrollment begins November 1 for coverage effective January 1.[41]

Open enrollment is an opportunity to obtain a health insurance plan that includes benefits for flu or COVID-19 testing,[42] and to help cover doctor’s office visits, hospitalization and emergency care if needed.[43]

Learn how to get ready for ACA open enrollment.

ACA-Qualifying Health Plans for Comprehensive Coverage

ACA health plans can be particularly helpful if you were to develop serious coronavirus-related health complications that required hospitalization since, as previously mentioned, hospitalization for COVID-19 can be particularly costly.

In addition to providing benefits for testing and treatment of the flu and coronavirus, ACA policies are guaranteed issue and cover pre existing conditions, including COVID-19.[44]

The ACA rules for qualifying health plans are the same for the treatment of COVID-19 as they are for any viral infection, but individual insurance companies specify their benefits and coverages, so you’ll want to verify with the carrier if you have concerns about coverage for COVID-19 treatment.[45]

Subsidies: If you qualify, you may be able to obtain federal subsidies to help make premiums and/or out-of-pocket costs more affordable for plans purchased from the ACA Exchange. Learn more about premium tax credits and cost-sharing reductions.

Medicaid: Low-income individuals, families, children, the elderly, people with disabilities, and pregnant people may qualify for free or low-cost ACA coverage through Medicaid.[46] See if you qualify for Medicaid.

Special Enrollment: Additionally, if you’ve recently lost your ACA-qualifying health coverage due to being laid off, having your hours cut, or being furloughed, you may qualify for a special enrollment period to obtain an ACA plan.[47]

Learn more about qualifying for special enrollment or call 888-855-6837 to connect with a health insurance agent to understand your options.

Quote and Enroll in ACA-Qualifying Health Plans During Open Enrollment or a Special Enrollment Period.

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(Federally-Facilitated ACA-Marketplace Only. Find a State Exchange.)

Short Term Medical Insurance – Temporary Coverage Until Jan. 1

If you don’t currently have comprehensive health coverage and don’t qualify for a special enrollment period (or missed your window to enroll) you may want to consider short term health insurance to temporarily help with covered expenses resulting from unexpected illness until you can obtain an ACA plan during open enrollment.

Short term plans:

  • Are not subject to the annual open enrollment period
  • Are available in most states year-round
  • Allow you to choose your policy duration subject to your state’s limitations
  • Benefits are typically available as soon as you make your first premium payment, subject to your plan’s deductible, copay, coinsurance, and pre existing conditions limitations

Once open enrollment begins in November you can then purchase an ACA plan for coverage beginning Jan. 1[48] to avoid a health insurance coverage gap during flu season.

Short term plans don’t cover essential health benefits or pre existing conditions and are not guaranteed issue, so not everyone who applies qualifies for coverage. In addition, they may not cover flu or COVID testing or treatment.

Compare short term health insurance coverage and benefits options now.

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Telemedicine for Socially Distanced Healthcare

Virtual healthcare delivered via phone or an internet connection can be a more convenient and safer way to get diagnosed and treated for common and non-acute health concerns, such as skin rashes and sinus infections, during the coronavirus epidemic and flu season.

In many cases, telemedicine providers can diagnose, provide a treatment plan and prescribe medication for pickup at your local pharmacy if necessary.

Learn more about telemedicine to see if it might be a good option for you this flu season. Telemedicine is not health insurance.

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Summary and Next Steps

Lots of people are concerned and confused when it comes to COVID-19 and flu season. And there’s still a lot we don’t know and will continue to learn as the winter months unfold.

Hopefully, this post has been able to address some common questions such as:

  • How are the coronavirus and flu virus the same and different?
  • Can you get COVID-19 and the flu at the same time?
  • Can a flu shot protect against COVID-19?
  • What health insurance covers COVID-19 and seasonal flu testing and treatment?

Avoiding a health insurance coverage gap during the “co-epidemics” of flu and COVID-19 may be especially critical this year. Short term health insurance may be able to help until Jan. 1, when ACA coverage you enroll in during the annual open enrollment period begins.

For more information about the seasonal flu, check out “Does Insurance Cover Flu Shots – And Other Flu Season Answers”.

For help obtaining health insurance coverage, call 888-855-6837, or begin the process below by requesting a quote.

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Originally Published On September 29th, 2020
Independence American Insurance Company and/or Madison National Life Insurance Company, Inc. may underwrite the products referenced on this website. Legal Disclaimers.

Footnotes