We’re soon approaching one of the most critical periods in public health for residents of Meadville and elsewhere across Pennsylvania.

No, I’m not talking about the COVID-19 pandemic and the ongoing fear and confusion it has brought. Rather, I’m referring to something perennial and sort of traditional, and now often overlooked — the flu season.

It may seem a bit strange for me, a health care professional with over a decade of experience, to say this, but the pandemic has had a positive effect — at least when it comes to “normal” seasonal influenza. Amid the devastating swirl of COVID-19, the widespread taking of protective actions like wearing a mask, staying home, social distancing and hand washing have actually contributed to an encouraging trend: a decline in 2020-2021 flu incidence.

Yes, all the precautions that folks are now taking are not only helping slow down the pandemic, they are helping fight the flu.

As you may know, flu viruses are constantly changing and it’s not unusual for new flu viruses to appear each year. In addition, like with COVID-19, certain people, including adults older than 65, pregnant people and adults with chronic health conditions, are at higher risk of developing serious complications from the flu, resulting in hospitalizations or, sadly, even death.

Keep in mind that the seasonal flu and COVID-19 are both contagious illnesses that affect the respiratory system Despite their similarities, however, COVID-19 and influenza are caused by different strains of virus and are different in many ways as well. For example, compared to the flu, COVID-19, can take longer for people to show symptoms, can be contagious for longer and, unfortunately, can spread more easily.

As we saw throughout allergy season, symptoms common to allergies can be mistaken for COVID and vice-versa. Similarly, there are signs and symptoms that COVID-19 and influenza both share such as fever, cough and a loss of taste or smell. Please keep in mind these symptoms can vary in degree of severity, ranging from no symptoms (asymptomatic) to severe symptoms.

And, because the symptoms can be similar for both viruses, the diagnosis cannot be made on symptoms alone. The bottom line is that testing is needed for a proper diagnosis. That’s why it is remains important to get one of the multiple FDA-licensed influenza shots (vaccines) that are produced annually and widely available.

Some may wonder that if they are already vaccinated for COVID-19, do they still have to get a flu shot. The answer is yes. The COVID-19 vaccine will not protect a person from influenza. The best way to reduce the risk from seasonal flu and its potentially serious complications is to get a flu shot every year.

Also, people may ask that if they’ve already had COVID-19, then can they still get the flu. Also yes, people can be infected with both the virus that causes COVID-19 and influenza at the same time and present symptoms of both.

According to the CDC, everyone six months and older should get a flu vaccine every season, ideally by the end of October. Simply stated, flu vaccines help reduce the burden of flu illnesses, hospitalizations and deaths on the health care system.

Being proactive about staying healthy for yourself and your family is important — that includes following general safety tips to help reduce the risk of catching or spreading the flu such as washing your hands often with soap and water, avoiding close contact with people who are sick and avoiding touching your eyes, nose and mouth.

And another important way to be proactive is to discuss health care options with your primary care physician, and why now, as we enter the flu season, learning about and getting the flu shot can be a critically important part of advocating for health and wellbeing.

Ashley Doolittle, R.N., is the lead nurse for MedExpress Urgent Care in Meadville.

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