We’re heading quickly into respiratory season – which this year includes COVID-19 as well as influenza (flu), and Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV, a common respiratory virus with cold-like symptoms). Experts agree that this season is likely to be unpredictable and complicated, thanks to the ongoing pandemic and the lifting of many COVID-related restrictions.
Recently, two Cardinal Health leaders, Emily Berlin, Vice President of Marketing and Product Management for Laboratory Products, and Gregg Jones, Director of Marketing, Pharmacy Distribution business, sat down to discuss the flu season, the important role testing plays, and what they’re doing to help healthcare providers prepare.
Berlin leads a team that supports diagnostic testing (including for flu and COVID-19), as well as purpose-built storage and transport options for vaccines. Jones leads Cardinal Health’s efforts to expand pharmacy-based point-of-care testing for flu, COVID-19 and other respiratory diseases.
1: This flu season is unpredictable
Health officials warn that the 2021-2022 influenza season could be unusually severe in the U.S., partly because so few people were infected with the flu in 2020, likely due to pandemic-related restrictions. (The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported just over 2,000 flu cases in the U.S. between September 2020 and April 2021, compared to millions in earlier years.)
Some experts are concerned that the flu season could peak at the same time as potential regional outbreaks of COVID-19. “In that case, healthcare providers wouldn’t be able to tell immediately which virus a patient has because some symptoms are the same,” Jones said. “The patient would have to be tested for COVID-19, then quarantined until COVID-19 is ruled out.”
2: The symptoms for various respiratory illnesses are similar, but not the same
Flu starts quickly with high fever, chills, aches and pains. If you have symptoms, get tested right away to confirm positive infection; treatment should be started within 48 hours of a positive test.
COVID-19 begins gradually; early symptoms might be changes in taste and smell, and can also include fever, chills and aches. Treatment requires a positive COVID test, and must be started within the first 10 days of symptoms; the sooner treatments are started the better.
RSV is a very common illness during the winter months, especially for infants. RSV attacks the lining of the airways and lungs, and often starts with cold-like symptoms; fever and a cough are also likely.
The chart below provides more details of the symptoms of each illness.
3: Diagnostic testing is key for timely treatment and preventing spread
“It all begins with the test,” Berlin said. “Diagnostic test results provide crucial information that sets in motion a cascade of care, treatment and public health measures. Today, respiratory tests for flu, RSV and COVID are readily available at pharmacies and healthcare providers.”
Jones added, “Providers require accurate, fast, actionable results in order to properly care for their patients.” Testing is also important for the health of the community: With effective diagnoses, healthcare providers can recommend appropriate actions, like quarantining, to reduce spread.
“This year, we expect that people’s willingness to get tested for COVID-19 is likely to apply to other respiratory viruses, as well,” Berlin said. Throughout the pandemic, Cardinal Health worked to make tests available to customers as soon as the tests received Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) approval from the FDA.
Testing is continually improving, Berlin said. She points to multi-plex testing, which allows a provider to perform one test for Influenza A, Influenza B and COVID-19, as well as over-the-counter (OTC) designation for COVID tests. OTC tests further increase access to testing, and they provide quick, reliable results, she said. Cardinal Health continues to work closely with manufacturers to increase the availability of OTC tests.
“Eventually, I can imagine OTC testing performed in alternate settings – at home or even in schools, with the proper clearances in place,” Berlin said.
4: Flu vaccines are more important than ever
“Health experts say that the best way to avoid getting the flu is to get a flu vaccine every year,” Jones said. Why every year? Flu viruses change, and so do the vaccines. In addition, the protection that a flu vaccine provides lessens over time, especially for older people. (Getting a vaccine is not a guarantee that you won’t get the flu, but it could mean that you’ll have only a mild case.)
Typically, about half the people in the U.S. eligible for a flu vaccine get one. But studies from the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health suggest the possibility of nearly half a million more people than normal being hospitalized with the flu this season, unless at least 75% of those eligible get a vaccine. (Learn more from the CDC here about the importance of getting a vaccine.)
5: Safety protocols for COVID-19 help reduce spread of the flu, too.
As with COVID-19, you can pass along the flu before you feel ill. You can get the flu when someone nearby coughs or sneezes; the flu virus can live for several hours on a surface like a doorknob or a book.
“Flu is often transmitted the same way that COVID-19 is spread; the same safety protocols that help to slow the spread of COVID-19 also slow the spread of flu,” Jones said. “Wash your hands often, especially before eating or touching your eyes, nose or mouth. Cover your face when you cough or sneeze, wear a mask, avoid large crowds and stay home when you are feeling ill.”
6: Innovation supports healthcare providers
“Today, there are more demands on pharmacists and clinicians than ever before,” Jones said. “From the beginning of the pandemic, they’ve been on the frontline, working tirelessly to help keep their communities safe. We’re proud to support them with innovative products and services.”
Some of Cardinal Health’s solutions include:
Berlin said, “We know that an unpredictable respiratory season makes it difficult for customers to plan what respiratory testing and specimen collection products should be purchased in order to ensure they have supply on hand. The COVID-19 pandemic and mild 2020-2021 flu season have made planning even more complicated.”
Through our Respiratory Reserved Inventory program, customers can pre-book select rapid diagnostic tests for RSV, flu and COVID-19 as well as viral collection kits for patient specimens. “The program leverages analytical insights to provide customers with a roadmap for their respiratory test use,” Belin said. “Providers can reserve known quantities of product, and then access them quickly, whenever they need them throughout the season.”
(Note: You can learn more about how we support healthcare providers’ efforts to keep their patients healthy this respiratory season at CardinalHealth.com/respiratoryresources.)
7: COVID-19 vaccines will not protect against the flu
COVID-19 and the flu are two different illnesses; you need both a COVID-19 vaccine and a flu vaccine to be protected from both. However, a study published early this year in The American Journal of Infection Control showed that those who got a flu shot are 24% less likely to test positive for COVID-19. In addition, patients who had a flu vaccine who were later tested positive for COVID-19 were less likely to require hospitalizations for COVID, and had shorter hospital stays.