While most of Ithaca and the world are focused on COVID-19, Cornell Health is trying to keep another virus from spreading on campus.
In an effort to prevent a flu outbreak, Cornell Health is partnering with Wegmans Pharmacy to host flu vaccine clinics on campus. However, this year’s flu clinics will differ from previous years.
Wegmans Pharmacy is taking precautions for this year’s flu vaccine clinics, asking students and other members of the community to sign up in advance for a timeslot to reduce wait times and density in the line, according to Anne Jones, medical director at Cornell Health. Wegmans Pharmacy is also asking people to complete consent forms ahead of their visit to reduce their time and contact at clinics, as well as requiring them to wear a face covering at all times.
This year, Cornell Health is mandating all students to get the flu vaccine as part of the University’s behavioral compact — different from previous years’ policies of recommending, rather than requiring, the flu vaccine.
“The requirement is part of a comprehensive public health strategy to fight COVID-19,” Sharon McMullen, Assistant Vice President of Student and Campus Life for Health and Wellbeing, wrote in an email to The Sun.
Fears over the effects of a large flu outbreak on campus have at least partially motivated this mandate. While influenza and SARS-CoV-2 are different viruses, they do share some traits that would make dealing with both at the same time more complicated.
Both viruses infect the lungs and cause symptoms such as a fever, cough and body aches, making it difficult to differentiate the two without a test.
“Some of the similarity is because they have the same mechanism to infect a human,” said Dr. Cynthia Leifer, associate professor of immunology. “They are both inhaled and they both infect the lung, so they both can induce pathology in the lung and cause overlapping types of symptoms.”
The similarities in symptoms means that Cornell Health must take every case of a respiratory illness as seriously as if the patient had COVID-19, until they know otherwise.
“High rates of influenza among our campus population could seriously tax resources at Cornell Health and in the community,” Jones said. “A large flu — or COVID — outbreak requires Cornell Health to shift into pandemic operational modes, which focus on urgent and emergent levels of care.”
Jones also said that many of the resources that would be needed for a flu outbreak would be diverted from COVID-19 testing, treatment and medical support for quarantine students. “I think one of the biggest challenges we have is that the symptoms are the same,” said Frank Kruppa, Public Health Director of Tompkins County. He is hopeful that this year will be a better flu season because more people will be encouraged to get a flu vaccine.
“One of our best defenses here will be to try to limit flu in our community,” Kruppa said. “Getting vaccinated, wearing face coverings, washing your hands and social distancing should all help us to that end.”
There are also individual dangers of getting the flu during COVID-19. Every respiratory infection an individual has can cause inflammation and damage in the lungs, weakening and breaking the barriers that separate the microbe-laden outside air and the more susceptible interior part of the lung, according to Prof. Cynthia Leifer, microbiology and immunology. The easier it is for these microbes to cross those barriers, the more likely it is for a new infection to arise.
Damage to the lungs also reduces overall lung function, making it harder to physically deal with a decrease in respiratory capacity during future infections. Together, this means that getting the flu can increase one’s chances of contracting COVID-19 as well as the severity of the infection.
“The more times you get infected, the worse your lungs will be over time. So it’s always a good idea to not get infected,” Leifer said.
It is also possible to get two infections in the lung at the same time. However, information on how SARS-CoV-2 interacts with influenza is scarce.
“If you have two respiratory pathogens that are both going to go into your lung, and both inducing pathology and the immune system is trying to combat both at the same time, [the immune system] is going to have a harder time than one by itself,” Leifer said.
While there are hopes that this year’s flu season may not be as severe due to measures like social distancing and mask wearing, Cornell Health doesn’t want to take any chances.
“It’s hard to predict this early how intense this year’s flu season will be,” Jones said. “However, public health officials and healthcare professionals around the world — and here at Cornell — are preparing for influenza and COVID-19 to be in circulation at the same time, which could cause additional and more serious illnesses, and put a significant strain on health care systems.”
To ensure this year’s flu season does not interfere with Cornell’s ability to deal with COVID-19 or any other healthcare issues, Jones urged Cornellians to take steps to prevent getting and spreading the flu.
“The more the community can focus on self-preventive efforts — mask-wearing, physical distancing, and vaccination — the better our chances of keeping infection rates low in the community, retaining our normal operations, and continuing to offer a full spectrum of services,” she said.
Cornell Health has opened vaccine clinics at a variety of locations on campus from now until the end of October. The vaccine is free to all students, faculty and staff.