Houston Health Department Chief Medical Officer David Persse said he remembers his grandmother getting really upset when he got the measles as a child — first, because had gotten sick, and second, because he had gotten others sick.
“It had to be explained to me that the measles is a virus that could be spread to other people,” he said.
Persse said he uses that example when discussing both the flu and the coronavirus. “As a community, we all have a combined responsibility to ensure that we stop the spread of the viruses,” he said.
As flu season arrives in Houston, Persse said the Houston Health Department anticipates a surge of people wanting to get a flu vaccine, while urging residents to remain mindful of the seriousness of COVID-19 this year.
“Every year, we hope more people get their flu vaccines than the prior year. This is especially true during the COVID-19 pandemic. If fewer people get sick from the flu because they were vaccinated, hospitals will be in a better position to have the needed capacity for care for COVID-19 patients,” Persse said.
Toward the end of October, new COVID-19 cases in Houston surpassed 79,200, and more than 1,200 patients had died.
Persse described this year’s flu season as “complicated,” partly because of the ongoing pandemic.
“We want to make sure people don’t get the flu and coronavirus at the same time,” Persse said. “When they start developing symptoms, it’s difficult to know if they’ve got the flu or COVID.”
He said oftentimes when people get the flu, they will try to work through it and go to work and school. “The problem is they start spreading the virus and now we have a problem,” Persse said.
Most people recover from seasonal flu in one to two weeks, according to the HHD website. The Center for Disease Control reported between 24,000 and 62,000 people died from the flu virus between Oct. 1, 2019, and April 4, 2020.
“Every person who dies from the flu was a preventable death. This is not OK, and we should never be comfortable with those numbers,” Persse said.
He also said COVID-19 pandemic will present unique problems during this season.
“People need to understand that COVID-19 is way more lethal than the flu,” he said, citing a Harvard-Yale Public study. “Even as hospitals have gotten better at treating it, COVID-19 is still more lethal than the flu.”
While the flu and coronavirus are considered a contagious disease and share similar symptoms — including fever, headache and body chills — one of the differences is that COVID-19 patients often lose senses of smell and taste.
“(COVID-19) has the ability to get into the brain through your nose, and the taste and smell senses are right next to each other, and that is where the damage is done,” Persse said.
He added that the coronavirus can also damage blood vessels, which can lead to blood clots.
“There are two ways to know you have a blood clot,” Persse said. “The first is if your arm or leg becomes swollen, which is a late sign of a large clot inside your body. The second occurs when a clot breaks off inside your body and travels through the veins and flow into your lungs. The veins will get small very fast and can develop into a pulmonary embolism.
“That can cause you to instantly go from feeling fine to not being able to breathe. It’s life threatening,” Persse said.
Health Department officials are also reminding everyone how to help prevent the spread of the flu and other illnesses by:
- washing their hands frequently;
- covering their mouths when coughing and sneezing;
- staying home at least 24 hours after their fever is gone, unless it is to get medical care.
HHD offers flu vaccinations at its health centers to all residents on a sliding scale ranging from free to $15. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the need to ensure proper social distancing, the health department is offering flu vaccines by appointment at its centers. Those interested may call 3-1-1 for information.
“One thing we do not want this flu season is a line. We want them in and out as quickly as possible to help contain any potential spread,” Persse said.
Despite the challenges of combating a flu season while in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, Persse said he wants residents to feel empowered this year and beat both viruses.
“Wear your mask, get tested … these things can help protect you and help you feel empowered to beat this,” he said.
He also said he realizes that while people have differing views on the seriousness of the coronavirus, the shift in thinking needs to change in how the public approaches the virus.
“The mentality back when I was growing up of communal thinking was effective back then. The virus is our enemy, not each other. Nothing else. That’s what we need to focus on,” Persse said.