As Kern County's hospitals finally see a reprieve from the deluge of COVID-19 patients this summer, local medical professionals and administrators are bracing themselves for flu season.
A bad seasonal flu combined with an uptick in COVID-19 cases — a "twindemic" as some have called it — could spell disaster for local medical facilities that were already stretched to the brink this summer with high patient volumes.
As Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, recently put it: The United States is headed toward “the worst fall, from a public health perspective, we’ve ever had.”
Redfield followed up by urging the public to "hunker down" this winter and get a flu shot.
The annual immunization is recommended for everyone over 6 months old, even the healthiest adults, according to the CDC.
"Just do yourself a favor and do something to protect yourself now so you don’t have to worry about it," said Dr. Fernando Fan, a pediatrician with Kaiser Permanente. "If you do end up with fever, we’ll take care of you, but it’s better if you take care of yourself first, it’s better."
If the COVID-19 pandemic gets worse, and flu becomes widespread this winter, running out of hospital beds and ventilators is a real possibility, Fan said.
"So if we can try to control the one which we have the vaccine for, it helps the odds of that happening," he said.
Flu shots are already available locally and will become more available in the coming weeks. Kaiser Permanente is offering drive-thru flu shots at two locations in Bakersfield and the immunization is also currently available at Albertsons, Costco and other local pharmacies. The flu shot is covered by most insurance but costs around $50 to $60 for the uninsured.
New this year, the federal government is allowing pharmacists to give the shot to children as young as age 3 in an effort to expand access. However, it's best to check with your insurance because some may not allow child vaccinations at pharmacies.
The Kern County Public Health Services Department offers free and low-cost flu shots every year but won't receive its flu vaccine until early October, said spokeswoman Michelle Corson. It has not yet announced any flu vaccination clinics.
In an unusual step, the University of California system last month mandated that all faculty, staff and students get a flu shot by Nov. 1 in recognition of the impact a bad flu season could have on health care facilities with the ongoing pandemic.
Medical professionals urge people not to put off the vaccination out of fear of visiting a medical facility and possibly being exposed to COVID-19. At most facilities, patients exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19 are separated from other patients, and staff wear protective gear.
It is possible to contract COVID-19 and flu at the same time, which could potentially cause a more severe illness and drive up mortality rates, according to Dr. Amolika Mangate with Adventist Health.
It's just one more reason to get the flu shot.
And "if you do get (the flu) it’s going to be milder with the flu shot," Mangate said.
So far, flu season has been mild in other parts of the world, which is encouraging news. Australia, for example, where flu season is April to September, had a record low season. However, that's likely due to masking and lockdown orders that were in place due to COVID-19, and high vaccination rates.
But it's no guarantee that it will be the same in the United States this winter.
Complicating matters is that both flu and COVID-19 share common symptoms so it will be hard for patients or doctors to know the difference. Early on patients presenting with fever and cough may be tested for both.
Fan, of Kaiser Permanente, said people shouldn't wait to get the flu shot. Now is the perfect time as flu tends to start spreading in October. Typically flu peaks later in the winter but that can vary and some years it's worse in October and November, he said.
Numbers for last year's flu season in Kern County were not available but in the previous season, 2018-19, there were 27 ICU hospitalizations and nine deaths from flu. That was the most since the 2013-14 season, when 23 people were hospitalized in the ICU and 11 people died of flu.