By Ramon Cancino, MD, MS, FAAFP

Ramon Cancino, MD
Ramon Cancino, MD, MS, FAAFP, is senior director of medical management and director of the Primary Care Center for UT Health Physicians, the clinical practice of the Joe R. and Teresa Lozano Long School of Medicine at UT Health San Antonio.

The flu season will quickly descend upon San Antonio and collide with the COVID-19 pandemic, and we must do our best to prepare. To do this, we must all get our flu shots, unless an existing medical condition prevents you from safely doing so.

In getting our shots, we can come together as a team to help our entire community.

Influenza (flu) viruses spread in the United States every year from the late fall through early spring. While most infected people recover without serious complications, flu infections can be associated with serious illnesses, hospitalizations and deaths, particularly among older adults, very young children, pregnant women, and persons of all ages with certain chronic medical conditions.

As a family medicine physician in San Antonio, I have seen illness cause fear, psychological distress and even financial hardship among patients. Illness can also impact friends, close contacts and loved ones. This is typically magnified during flu season. The COVID-19 pandemic adds another factor to consider: The flu and COVID-19 can cause similar symptoms.

Like COVID-19, the flu can come with fever, cough and shortness of breath. This year, patients who go to clinics, emergency rooms and hospitals with these symptoms may be evaluated for COVID-19 and the flu. We should expect COVID-19 safety precautions to be applied even in situations when we think we have the flu. These precautions are necessary to keep both patients and medical staff safe.

The flu vaccine can reduce symptoms that might be confused with those of COVID-19. It can also decrease the severity of the illness, reduce hospitalizations, protect pregnant women, and save lives of children and adults.

During the 2018-2019 flu season, the vaccination rate in the United States was 49.2%. During that same period, Texas’s vaccination rate was 47.9%.

We can do better than this, and this is an important time in our history to do so.

Here are four things we can do to prepare our community:

  1. Call your primary care physician (PCP) and schedule a time to get your annual flu shot. Flu shots are safe for those who do not have a true medical reason to avoid it. Many PCP offices carry flu shots to give to patients, and they will start receiving them from suppliers soon. Many offices will have flu shot clinics where patients can walk in or schedule an appointment to get flu shots. If you do not have a PCP, find one who is right for you.
  2. Tell your friends and community members. The more people who are vaccinated, the less likely it is for this contagious disease to be spread to others. This is called herd immunity. Remind friends, family and community members that, even though they may not be in one of the high-risk groups, getting vaccinated prevents them from getting the flu and spreading it to someone else who may be more vulnerable.
  3. Follow current recommendations regarding COVID-19. The same actions that protect us and others from COVID-19 (mask wearing, hand washing, social distancing) also will protect us from the flu. Continue to follow guidance from medical leaders on ways to keep yourself safe.
  4. Get evaluated by the appropriate person if you feel sick. Call your physician and get evaluated either in person or through telemedicine. Physicians will follow guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other health departments on COVID-19 and flu testing. Your symptoms can often be diagnosed and treated without a trip to the emergency room or hospital.

Last flu season, the CDC estimated that between 39 million and 56 million people had a flu infection and that there were between 24,000 and 62,000 flu-related deaths. Bexar County saw about 400 flu-related deaths during the 2019-2020 flu season, according to the Bexar County Influenza Surveillance Report. At the time of this writing, San Antonio has reported more than 44,500 cases of COVID-19 and 698 COVID-19 related deaths. Each of these numbers represents the life of a human being. We should strive to prevent loss and suffering at every opportunity.

I have seen illness stress our health system and our community, but I have also seen how illness can bring people together and remind us that we are all on the same team. As a team, we must recognize how playing our own small parts can contribute to great success. Helping to increase our community’s flu shot rate by getting a flu shot and encouraging your friends to do the same can help our team. We can and must do this together because our lives and well-being depend on it.

Ramon Cancino, MD, MS, FAAFP, is senior director of medical management and director of the Primary Care Center for UT Health Physicians, the clinical practice of the Joe R. and Teresa Lozano Long School of Medicine at UT Health San Antonio.


Read more: How to avoid a possible catastrophe: a “twindemic,” or surge in COVID-19 cases coupled with flu season.