News

5 Ways Hospitals Are Preparing for Flu Season During the COVID-19 Pandemic

man wearing mask getting arm swabbed by doctor in face shield

 Marko Geber / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

  • It's unclear how the flu season will pan out with the pandemic, but hospitals have geared up to accommodate a possibly larger influx of patients.
  • Efficient COVID-19 tests and flu tests and careful isolation strategies have been planned to keep patients safe. 
  • As of now, PPE supplies appear stable at major healthcare institutions, though smaller non-hospital facilities continue to wrestle with shortages.

It seems like a lifetime ago since the coronavirus pandemic’s early frenetic days, when healthcare workers were overstretched and hospitals across the country were desperate for space, supplies, and support. More than six months in, some regions seem to have the virus under control; others remain in the thick of it, and no one is sure what the next six months, smack in the middle of flu season, will bring.

What we do know, though, is that hospitals have had to make some significant changes in the way they’re structured and how they operate. And because of that, hospitals may be in a better position than ever before to fight the one-two punch of a "twindemic," should it, in fact, occur. Here’s what they’re doing.

Spreading the Word About the Flu Shot

It’s unclear what kind of flu season we’ll have. The Southern Hemisphere—which has its flu season during our summer—experienced an extremely mild one this year. And that may be the case here, too. But with many of the previous restrictions now relaxed, a generally colder climate in most of the U.S., and a virus that’s ever-changing, there are no guarantees.

To be safe, healthcare workers are trying to convince as many people as possible to get vaccinated against the flu. (Believe it or not, less than half of American adults, on average, typically get the flu shot each year.) Cleveland Clinic, for instance, is now offering appointment-only vaccinations to accommodate for social distancing. Patients can also get vaccinated at most scheduled, in-person doctor's appointments. 

At The Johns Hopkins Health System, patients are screened to make sure they have had the flu vaccine. “We offer it to them if they haven’t yet been vaccinated,” a spokesperson tells Verywell. “And we offer the flu shot to patients at oncology curbside clinics at The Johns Hopkins Hospital.”

The medical center is also engaging people through social media, as with a Facebook Live event.

“Ensuring people get the influenza vaccine will go a long way to help prevent spread of influenza in the community, which will, in turn, prevent overtaxing the health systems,” Richard Rothman, MD, PhD, vice chair of research, department of emergency medicine, at The Johns Hopkins Hospital, tells Verywell.

Making a Faster Diagnosis

COVID-19 and flu symptoms are nearly indistinguishable, marked by such symptoms as cough, muscle aches, fever. Some hospitals are administering combination-COVID-19-flu-virus tests, for which the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently issued an emergency use authorization; other hospitals plan to in the coming months. These tests are thought to conserve resources and time by providing results with one swab of the nose instead of two separate ones.

At Mount Sinai Downtown in New York City, patients complaining of respiratory problems are isolated until the results for both flu and COVID-19 return, generally within 12 to 24 hours.

"We want to identify the condition as early as possible to understand how best to treat the patient,” Erick Eiting, MD, vice chair of operations for emergency medicine at Mount Sinai Downtown, part of the Mount Sinai Health System in New York City, tells Verywell. Tests are assessed within the healthcare system, as opposed to being sent out to a third party lab, keeping the process quick and efficient. 

Keeping Patients and Healthcare Workers Safe

Mask requirements, social distancing, and obsessive disinfecting are only the beginning. Beyond that, hospitals have instituted protocols to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

“When anyone shows up, we isolate them until we know what we’re dealing with,” Alan Taege, MD, an infectious disease expert at Cleveland Clinic, tells Verywell.

Isolation rooms have become increasingly important in hospitals. These negative-pressure rooms have a special ventilation system that sucks air up out of the room and through a filtration system. This prevents the escape of contaminated air. At Mount Sinai Downtown, there are now more than a dozen of these rooms, and the hospital is continuing to look at how they might expand the use of this technology to protect patients and staff.

At Johns Hopkins Health System, hundreds of regular hospital rooms throughout its system had received a ventilation upgrade over the winter, spring, and summer with help from the building automation system and from HEPA filter fan units. This allows rooms to switch from positive air pressure (which keeps viruses out of the room) to negative air pressure (which prevents viruses from an infected COVID-19 patient from escaping into other rooms).

Hospitals are also thinking more about helping patients feel more connected with family, even when they're kept apart. At UCLA Health, for instance, tablets in patient rooms allow loved ones to stay connected with the patient when they can’t come in.

Making Room

Back in April, UCLA Health erected tents so that patients with potential COVID-19 symptoms could be evaluated without potentially infecting others. In essence, says Dan Uslan, MD, UCLA Health’s co-chief infection prevention officer and clinical chief of the division of infectious diseases, “We’ve extended where we see our patients.” These strategies may again prove helpful should a large number of flu patients also require resources needed by COVID-19 patients. 

Securing Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)

The major health systems we checked in with tell us they’re confident that their PPE stockpile (masks, face shields, and so on) will sustain the possible surge in patients needing care this winter. The nonprofit Get Us PPE confirms that an increasing number of requests are coming from non-hospital facilities, such as nursing homes and home health aid organizations. In fact, in April, 47% of requests were from acute care hospitals; now that number is 10%.

“As the supply chain has caught up to some extent since April, hospitals are increasingly able to afford PPE, but small facilities still cannot,” Amanda Peery-Wolf, deputy director of communications at Get Us PPE, tells Verywell. “PPE distributors often don’t accept small orders, or the price per unit cost of a small order is cost-prohibitive, especially for facilities in under-resourced communities.”

What This Means For You

In this potentially complicated flu season, you may be tempted to forgo medical care and wait to address health concerns when the pandemic is over. Don't. It's still important to stay on top of your usual check-ups, treatments, and vaccines. Hospitals, especially larger ones, have made strides in adjusting their space and and their protocols—so you can stay safe and healthy, even in the midst of a pandemic.

Was this page helpful?
Article Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Olsen SJ, Azziz-Baumgartner E, Budd AP, et al. Decreased influenza activity during the COVID-19 pandemic — United States, Australia, Chile, and South Africa, 2020. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep 2020;69:1305–1309. doi:10.15585/mmwr.mm6937a6

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Flu vaccination coverage, United States, 2018–19 influenza season. Updated September 26, 2019.