Flu season amidst the COVID-19 pandemic

Written by Carrie Hanley, PhD, MPH, CIC, manager, infection prevention & control, Mount Nittany Health

As we continue to battle the COVID-19 pandemic, the onset of flu season makes it more important than ever to help contain the spread of both diseases. So far, the United States has been experiencing a milder flu season this year—a possible benefit of efforts we’re taking to prevent the spread of COVID-19. But even so, the flu is making its rounds.

COVID-19 vs. Influenza. What’s the difference?


Influenza (the flu) and COVID-19 are both contagious respiratory illnesses: They affect your lungs and breathing and can be spread to others. Although the symptoms of COVID-19 and the flu can look similar, the two illnesses are caused by different viruses.

Symptoms of COVID-19 and the flu can range from mild to severe, and overlapping symptoms including fever, cough, runny or stuffy nose, headache, fatigue and muscle/body aches.

But there are differences. Some early symptoms of COVID-19 may also include the loss of taste and/or smell, nausea and diarrhea, which are less associated with the flu. Flu onset can also happen quickly, with individuals typically experiencing symptoms one to four days after exposure to the virus. With COVID-19, symptoms appear an average of five days after exposure.

It’s also important to remember that because COVID-19 is such a new virus, we don’t yet fully understand the potential for long-term respiratory, and even heart damage once the virus itself has cleared.

Can you get both?

It is possible to have both illnesses — and other respiratory infections — at the same time. If you develop the symptoms that could be related to either the flu or COVID-19, you should call your doctor and isolate yourself from others until COVID-19 is ruled out. If you are unable to see your doctor, then it’s important to stay at home and isolate yourself for at least 10 days and until your symptoms resolve.

The importance of vaccines
Every year a flu vaccine is available starting in October. The flu shot is safe for almost everyone, including pregnant women, children over six months of age, older adults and people with underlying medical conditions. It’s especially important for vulnerable individuals to get flu vaccinations because it will decrease their risk of developing a severe case of the flu. If enough people get vaccinated, it can help prevent the spread of the flu in the community and alleviate the burden of an already overburdened healthcare system. If you haven’t already received the flu vaccine, it is not too late.

The good news is that a vaccine has also been developed against COVID-19. As it continues to roll out and become available to various populations, it will be important to be vaccinated against both the influenza and COVID-19 viruses.

And although we’ve been hearing it for many months, it remains critical to double down on the safety measures that can prevent the spread of both COVID-19 and the flu: hand washing or sanitizing, wearing masks, physical distancing, covering coughs and sneezes, and staying home when sick. The choices we make affect not only our own health but the health of others.

Carrie Hanley, PhD, MPH, CIC, is the manager of infection prevention & control for Mount Nittany Health.

Dealing with COVID fatigue

Written by Candace Good, MD, behavioral health, Mount Nittany Medical Center

For most of 2020, we’ve all been dealing with stress caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. We are tired of staying home, tired of wearing masks, tired of news of more cases and more deaths. This ongoing stress has led to a widespread emotional exhaustion that has been called “COVID fatigue." COVID fatigue is real, but it’s important to continue to follow health guidelines.

 

As we enter into the coldest months of the year and another surge in COVID-19 cases, we can’t afford to let our guard down and become careless about taking precautions: washing hands, wearing masks and maintaining physical distance.

 

One helpful way to fight COVID fatigue is to practice coping skills. Here are some tips for staying mentally and physically healthy as we wait out the pandemic:

 

Practice constructive thinking: When we can’t change the situation, we can adjust our thinking. Be compassionate with yourself and others. Remind yourself, “I’m doing the best I can.” Focus on controlling what you can control and what you can do to protect yourself and your family.

 

Exercise: Exercise is one of the best ways to release the energy that builds up from stress and worry. Take a walk through the park or your neighborhood. Do floor exercises to a YouTube video. Play with your kids outside. Even taking longer routes through stores or parking farther from your destination makes a difference.

 

Practice mindfulness: Mindfulness is cultivating an awareness of the present moment. It can be as simple as stopping and focusing on the task at hand, or on the natural world around you, or on your own breathing. Redirecting your focus to the now helps dispel anxiety about the future. Rather than projecting into the future or ruminating about the past, for now, just take life day by day.

 

Express yourself: By sharing how we’re feeling—whether through talking with a trusted friend, writing in a journal, or playing a musical instrument—we release the worry and stress that we’ve been holding in before it builds up to a traumatic level.

 

Watch what you’re watching: Although staying informed is important, inundating yourself with information can add to COVID fatigue. Consider limiting yourself to a few trustworthy news sources, as well as limiting the time you spend each day listening to news. Be especially mindful of social media, and don’t get caught up in arguing online.

 

Stay physically distant, not socially distant: The term “social distancing” is unfortunate because we need to stay connected socially, but distance physically. Use technology to stay in touch with friends and family. Even though it may not be a substitute for the real thing, it’s more important than ever that we stay socially connected.

 

Finally, it helps to remember that we have the ability to get back to all those things we’re missing—going out, visiting family and friends, eating in restaurants, and traveling—by following the health guidelines that will lead to the eventual end of the pandemic.

More than 700 Mount Nittany Health employees and medical staff sign letter to the community

As COVID-19 cases increase significantly in our community, Mount Nittany Health is taking actions to urge community members to practice behaviors, like wearing a mask and physical distancing, to help prevent COVID-19. To underscore the need for collective action, more than 700 Mount Nittany Health providers and staff signed an open letter to the community imploring them to stop the spread of COVID-19 by wearing a mask. Nurses, doctors, and employees from all departments across the system signed their names to the message. The health system shared the letter to the community through social media and publishing it in the Centre Daily Times on Sunday, December 20.

 

Just last week, Mount Nittany Health reached an all-time high of 53 COVID-19 inpatients ages 19 to 53.  In response, the Medical Center moved to the next phase of its pandemic response plan. Due to the sustained high COVID-19 inpatients, at least half of planned elective surgeries and some other procedures will be rescheduled through January 11. Further reductions will be made if needed.

 

The dedicated and compassionate team at Mount Nittany Health is asking the community to rally together to wear a mask, avoid gatherings, wash hands often, and maintain social distancing. These small actions make a difference in stopping the spread of COVID-19.

Click here to view the open letter to the community.

Mount Nittany Health moves to next phase of its pandemic response plan

With the continuing high numbers of COVID cases in the community and in the hospital, Mount Nittany Health announced today that it is moving forward with additional surge planning measures as part of its pandemic response plan.

With the recent rise in COVID hospitalizations, health system clinical leaders have been managing the number of elective surgeries that require overnight stays on a day-to-day basis. Given the sustained high volume of hospitalizations, approximately half of these surgeries and some other procedures will be rescheduled through January 11, 2021. Daily monitoring will continue, with any further reductions made as needed. Depending on future trends, other services may also be adjusted as the health system balances care for COVID hospitalized patients and those needing other care.

“Health systems around the region and around the country are challenged by the increasing number of COVID-positive admissions,” said Nirmal Joshi, MD, chief medical officer, Mount Nittany Health. “This surge is affecting everyone’s ability – including ours – to provide care to their communities. Until vaccines are widely available to the community, which will take some time, we urge the public to abide by advice they’ve been hearing about mitigation: wear masks, wash their hands, avoid gatherings, social distance and stay at home as much as possible.”

“We also want to recognize our outstanding staff that is showing tremendous commitment and flexibility under very challenging circumstances. We are doing everything possible to manage our operations in a way that serves the community and provides as much support as possible for our frontline workers.”

There are currently 53 COVID positive in patients at Mount Nittany Medical Center, ages 19 to 95.

Life in a COVID unit

Written by Amber Shaw, BSN, CCRN, manager, critical care services, Mount Nittany Medical Center

 

When I see people out in the community not wearing masks, I wish they could see the COVID unit at Mount Nittany Medical Center. When I see pictures of a large group gathering or hear about someone going to a big indoor party, I wish they could see our COVID unit. I wish everyone who thinks COVID isn’t real or isn’t dangerous could spend a day in the shoes of one of our nurses.

In the spring, we were all waiting and preparing for a crisis that didn’t materialize as forecasts had predicted. This is different. Now, the crisis is here.

Picture this image: Nurses and others tending to COVID patients, all of whom are sick enough to require hospitalization, wearing full protective gear. Anyone who leaves the unit for a break or a meal has to take it all off and put it all back on again when they return. It’s exhausting. It’s stressful. It’s hard.

Many of our patients have trouble breathing. Most will recover, but some will not. Some will go home but continue to feel the effects for a long time afterwards. Some will be lost. And they will go through this without their loved ones near – seeing them only through video calls whenever that’s possible. We try to comfort them, to talk to them about their lives and their families, to hold their hands.

Despite all the precautions we take, members of our staff are susceptible to COVID as well. Staff members and their families worry about getting sick.

And when we go into work every day, we know it’s possible that CDC guidelines will have changed to address new information we’ve learned, and that we’re all going to have to adapt to new protocols that weren’t in place the day before.

When we go home, exhausted, our kids still need our help with schoolwork, someone still needs to make dinner and, of course, the bills still need to be paid. And we look at our families and hope we haven’t brought the virus home to them.

For anyone who thinks this isn’t real, let me assure you: this is as real as it gets. It’s relentless. Our health system has a plan, we are implementing it, we are doing our best to support each other just as we support our patients every day. We are determined to persevere, to be as relentless as the virus and to stick with this until we defeat it.

But no one should underestimate the toll it is taking.

Please, please, please help us. The holidays are around the corner and the number of COVID cases in our community is expected to remain high. Believe me, we want to be celebrating with our friends and relatives as much as you do, but some of our friends and relatives may not be here next year unless we reduce the spread of COVID.

So please take measures recommended by health officials. It’s simple.

Social distance. Avoid large gatherings. Stay at home as much as possible. Wash your hands. And please, wear a mask.

The COVID-19 vaccine: What we know so far

Written by Christopher Hester, MD, internal medicine and clinical director, primary care services, Mount Nittany Physician Group

With news of several highly effective COVID-19 vaccines on the horizon, many of us are beginning to feel hopeful about the “light at the end of the tunnel.” While announcements of these vaccines—and their availability within months—are encouraging, it’s important to continue the mitigation efforts that have helped keep us safe over the past months.

COVID-19 can have serious, life-threatening complications, and there is no way to know how COVID-19 will affect you. And if you get sick, you could spread the disease to friends, family and others around you. So it’s important to know that vaccines are safe and effective, and they are the best way to protect yourself and those around you from serious illness. A COVID-19 vaccination will build protection against the virus, working with your immune system so it will be ready to fight the virus if you are exposed.

 

The COVID-19 vaccine will not be a cure. Rather, it will be another tool to help stop the pandemic, along with practices like wearing a mask, physical distancing, and frequent hand washing.

Right now, multiple COVID-19 vaccines are under development. Large-scale (phase 3) clinical trials are in progress or being planned for five COVID-19 vaccines in the United States. Pfizer and Moderna are in phase 3 trials and are closest to completing the vaccine. Several other companies also have vaccines in production.

While these vaccines are being developed as quickly as possible, routine processes and procedures remain in place to ensure the safety of any vaccine that is authorized or approved for use. Safety is a top priority throughout the process, and the benefits of a COVID-19 vaccine must outweigh the risks of the vaccine.

Vaccine trials are being conducted according to FDA standards. If FDA determines that a vaccine meets its safety and efficacy standards, it can make these vaccines available for use in the United States. 

When vaccines are approved for use, the Pennsylvania Department of Health will work to get them out to Pennsylvanians in three phases, following Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines.

In phase 1, when supply of the vaccine may be limited, initial efforts will focus on reaching healthcare personnel, first responders, essential workers, people 65 years and older, and residents of community care facilities. Phase 2 will focus on ensuring access to the vaccine for phase 1 critical populations who were not yet vaccinated as well as the general population. In phase 3 there should be enough vaccine for the entire population.

As vaccines begin to become available, remember that the combination of getting vaccinated and following CDC’s recommendations to protect yourself and others will offer the best protection from getting and spreading COVID-19. So be sure to cover your mouth and nose with a mask when around others, avoid close contact with people who are sick, stay six feet away from others, avoid crowds, and wash your hands often.