Many people consider COVID-19 to be similar to the flu, and both are viruses, but when it comes to illness, there is a difference.
The hospitals are just beginning to get patients with the flu for this year, and they expect more in the coming weeks.
Oklahoma’s hospitals that are already near capacity for critical care anticipate more pressure to come as flu spreads in the state. At the moment, the CDC reports few cases of flu in the state, and only slightly more in other states, at rates “lower than usual for this time of year" when it should begin to increase from infections picked up at Thanksgiving.
Experts believe masks, distancing and hand washing prompted by COVID-19 are impacting the spread of flu, along with the vaccine.
In October, Saint Francis Hospital operated drive-thru flu vaccination sites in Tulsa and Muskogee, vaccinating more than 10,000 people, while the Tulsa Health Department vaccinated more than 9,000 people at their clinics. Many other people sought flu vaccine through employers and pharmacies.
"Getting a flu shot makes it less likely you'll have serious flu complications or wind up in the hospital” said Ellen Niemitalo, the Clinical Services Manager with the Tulsa Health Department.
During last year's flu season, 3,580 Oklahomans were hospitalized and 85 people died. In 2018, the numbers were similar, but in 2017, an unusually virulent flu led to the hospitalization of almost 5,000 Oklahomans and 293 people died.
Health officials consider September 1 to be the start of each flu season, and so far this year, 65 people have been hospitalized in Oklahoma, and no patients have died. That's compared with 8,571 hospitalizations, and 1,122 deaths from COVID-19 during the same period. In a few cases in Tulsa, patients have been diagnosed with both.
“We have seen those patients in our hospitals” said Dr Guy Sneed, the Chief Medical Officer for Hillcrest Health System. “Invariably because you have two viral infections that primarily affect the respiratory system, and other organs, these patients can get profoundly sick.”
Sneed said that patients with symptoms common to both are routinely tested for COVID-19 and flu, now that flu is spreading.
Flu vaccinations are still available and still useful for this season which generally peaks early in January.