Pennsylvania officials say there are two presumed positive coronavirus cases in the eastern part of the state. There are no confirmed cases in western Pennsylvania, though it’s possible that the virus is circulating, undetected, in the Pittsburgh area. *
To conserve medical resources if a potential outbreak does occur, the Allegheny County Health Department is recommending that people get the seasonal flu shot.
This might seem like odd advice, as Jan Raether of Wilkinsburg discovered when he went to get the vaccine on Monday.
“The pharmacist kind of looked at his watch and was like ‘Dude, it’s March. Like, I think your chances of getting the flu, at this point, are as low as your chances of getting coronavirus,’” he said. “And he kind of chuckled at that.”
Though flu season is winding down, county data show that people are still contracting the virus. This year, 12 Allegheny County residents have died from flu-related illnesses. That number might go up, as was the case last year.
Public health officials say, right now, people in the Pittsburgh region are more likely to get the flu than COVID-19, the disease caused by coronavirus. That could change.
The health care system in the Seattle area, where most of the U.S.’s coronavirus-related fatalities have occurred, is “under incredible stress,” according to one public health official in that area.
Patty Hays, public health director of King County, Washington, where Seattle’s located, said the region needs to slow the spread of disease to the point where the area’s health care system can continue to care for patients.
“We do not want the situation that has been seen in other areas, in other counties, where the health care system was overloaded and unable to cope,” she said.
To avoid catching coronavirus, people across the globe are advised to thoroughly and frequently wash their hands, disinfect high-touch surfaces like doorknobs, and cover coughs and sneezes.
The treatments for both COVID-19 and influenza are similar—for example someone hospitalized with either illness might be put on a ventilator.
“We want to make sure those systems are available should a coronavirus, a novel coronavirus outbreak hit here. So that we can have those resources available. And we won’t have to go to surge capacity on those hospital beds,” said Dr. Luann Brink, the chief epidemiologist at Allegheny County’s health department, which has been preparing for possible coronavirus outbreaks.
The more people vaccinated against the flu, the less the disease circulates, and the more medical resources are available to potential patients with coronavirus, which has no vaccine.
“It’s also important that we’re able to discern those two viruses from one another,” said Brink. “Increasing the proportion of individuals who are vaccinated against influenza would help in that effort.”
COVID-19 and the flu have similar symptoms, including cough and fever.
Say someone in an area which a coronavirus outbreak develops these symptoms, because COVID-19 is sometimes fatal, they to go to the doctor, and it turns out to be flu. They’ve likely gone through a good amount of stress, and consumed medical resources at a time when health care workers are stretched thin.
Of course, some people still get the flu even after getting inoculated. This year, preliminary estimates find the vaccine is just 45 percent effective at preventing the illness.
“The flu vaccine for influenza is certainly not perfect,” said Dr. Tom Walsh, an infectious disease physician at Allegheny Health Network. “Even when it doesn’t completely prevent influenza illness. It minimizes the damage that it can cause. So potentially, instead dying from influenza, you may have a mild illness from influenza.”
And those people are less likely to need medical attention.
The flu shot is available at local pharmacies. Health insurance policies that are compliant with the Affordable Care Act cover the vaccine’s cost, without a copay.
*This story was updated at 12:30 pm, on March 6, 2020.