As the winter flu season approaches, amid the ongoing global pandemic, healthcare providers will face a conundrum: Anyone with the conventional symptoms of flu will be labeled as a potential harbinger of COVID-19 until proven otherwise.
Many institutions are uncertain of how to navigate this conundrum. Schools, hospitals, community centers and workplaces are trepidatious of how to proceed if someone starts exhibiting flu-like symptoms.
I am sure I am not the only one who, as a kid, was treated with chicken soup and rest when the winter cold season came around. Cartoons, soup and the occasional cola syrup for a queasy stomach, with a base of motherly love, and all was right with the world. (As I got older, I graduated to the hot toddy in addition to the conventional acetaminophen-ibuprofen cycling.)
The traditional responses to “flu-like symptoms” do not seem to be as effective in this new environment. Instead, we seem headed for a time dominated by fear, panic and finger- pointing as we struggle to come to grips with profound educational and economic disruption.
To help, many laboratory enterprises are offering rapid testing approaches capable of diagnosing the presence not only of COVID-19 but also of other respiratory pathogens that may cause flu-like symptoms.
The respiratory pathogen panels (RPP) can detect the offending organisms via their protein antigen or genetic fingerprints.a Some labs will batch or pool patient samples to avoid the higher costs incurred with individual testing. However, this approach is useful only where the incidence of offending organisms is low. Most labs promise a rapid turnaround time (24 to 48 hours) for molecular testing to quickly justify the need to stay quarantined or socially isolated or to allay the fear of infection with the coronavirus versus a less harmful infectious agent.
Give the flu its due respect
We should avoid the tendency to underestimate the dangers of influenza. It is actually associated with considerable morbidity and mortality, with influenza-related deaths potentially exceeding 500,000 globally.b The flu vaccination consists of flu strains that are projected to be most prominent in the upcoming season based on migrations from five World Health Organization Collaborating Centers for Reference and Research on Influenza.c Whether a flu vaccination will protect from COVID-19 is unknown, and is a point of much conjecture.d That said, a flu vaccination arguably protects 40% to 60% of those who receive it from a full-blown flu experience, and the idea that a flu vaccination can give a person the flu is incorrect.e
All this points to a critical message that cannot be overstated for all Americans, including anyone working in the healthcare industry: We all must do all we can to keep healthy during an unprecedented flu/COVID-19 season. And we must be clear about what constitutes proper health habits: getting proper sleep, eating healthily, staying warm and routinely exercising.
Add to these habits adhering strictly to guidelines regarding handwashing, social distancing and face coverings. Together, these habits serve to decrease transmission of many communicable diseases including COVID-19 and flu. I should add that healthy eating and various nutritional supplementation have been strongly advocated for their benefits in decreasing transmission, severity and/or course of disease.f
4 Recommendations for CFOs
So how can healthcare finance executives assist? Following are four recommendations.
1. Make sure your organization promotes flu shots. Healthcare organizations should actively encourage people in their communities to get flu shots, with a particular emphasis for this season to mitigate the potential impact from contracting COVID-19. There are very few contraindications to receiving the flu vaccine.g
2. Connect with appropriate testing laboratories. Many healthcare entities cannot introduce COVID-19, RPP or other diagnostic offerings due to economic limitations, space constraints, insufficient patient volume and a lack of operators with the necessary skill set. Hospitals therefore should partner with commercial laboratories that can provide their service lines with appropriate turnaround time to delineate COVID-19 from flu or other pathogens.
3. Promote wellness. Although wellness should be promoted year-round, it should be emphasized during the fall-winter season through educational rollouts that include virtual workshops on sleep improvement, exercise, stress reduction and well-eating, and its effectiveness can be enhanced by promoting activities likely to appeal to people in all age groups and disease states, such as yoga, Tai Chi, meditation, mindfulness and nutrition counseling.
4. Show that you care. It is one thing to hand someone a recipe and another to make it with them. Finance leaders should assess their organizations’ individual domains, including the communities they serve and the demographics their system represents. A primary focus should be to engage resources available outside of the healthcare domain — such as community leaders, social media influencers and other potential strategic allies — to help convey the message of the organization’s deep involvement and caring for the community.
A key ingredient for good health
Although chicken soup may not be the ideal remedy for this season, its intrinsic elements — including pleasant memories, warmth, nourishment, trust and love — all contribute to its labeling as a catch-all panacea. The healing power of these elements should not be understated. Including them in healthcare during this time of COVID-19 and flu undoubtedly can help reduce disease while nourishing body and soul.
a Calcagno, A., Ghisetti, V., Burdino, E., et al., “Coinfection with other respiratory pathogens in COVID-19 patients,” Letter to the editor, Clinical Microbiology and Infection, Aug. 18, 2020; Castillo, E., Coyne, C.J., Brennan, J.J., and Tomaszewski, C.A., “Rates of coinfection with other respiratory pathogens in patients positive for coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID‐19),” JACEP Open, July 2, 2020..
b Paget, J., Spreeuwenberg, P., Charu, V., et al., “Global mortality associated with seasonal influenza epidemics: New burden estimates and predictors from the GLaMOR Project,” Journal of Global Health, December 2019.
c Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Selecting viruses for the seasonal influenza vaccine,” Page last reviewed, Oct. 26, 2020.
d Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Frequently asked influenza (flu) questions: 2020-2021 season,” Page updated, Oct. 20, 2020.
e Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Vaccine effectiveness: How well do the flu vaccines work?” Page last reviewed, Jan. 3, 2020.
f Aman, F., and Masood, S., “How nutrition can help to fight against COVID-19 pandemic,” Pakistan Journal of Medical Sciences, May 2020.
g Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Who should and who should not get a flu vaccine,” Page last reviewed, Oct. 30, 2020.