As temperatures are continuing to cool down, health experts are anticipating COVID-19 and influenza cases to rise in the colder months as more activity moves indoors.
While the flu season has not "started in any kind of serious way" yet, according to Chicago's top doctor Allison Arwady, health experts are encouraging residents to get boosted against COVID-19 and vaccinated against the flu to help prevent outbreaks of either disease.
On Tuesday during a Facebook Live session, Arwady talked about the concern health experts have heading into a third winter of the COVID-19 pandemic with the fewest mitigation measures in place thus far.
Arwady acknowledged that while the city has moved into a low transmission level of COVID-19 overall, transmission in health care settings remains high. This has caused concern among health officials as transmission is high prior to the expected higher utilization of health care services during the colder months from both COVID-19 and the flu.
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"We continue to be in sort of a high transmission level of concern for healthcare and so you will continue to see healthcare settings generally in Chicago be requiring masking. But I think our health care settings are concerned appropriately as we head into this season," Arwady said.
According to Arwady, both viruses have several strains that are active at one time, causing some minor differences in symptoms from one case to another.
With COVID symptoms and flu symptoms often being extremely similar, Arwady said there's only one way to know for sure what virus you may have contracted.
"Typically people who get influenza tend to have fevers, tend to have body aches, tend to feel like they have been hit by a truck and can feel pretty sick. Of course though, people can also get those with COVID. So the bottom line is, that you need to get a test basically to know for sure," Arwady said.
While Chicago health officials currently don't see a noticeable rise in flu cases, information on the spread of the flu is being collected as part of surveillance reports.
Arwady also encouraged accessing the current information and resources the city has collected on the flu at their database.
As for COVID-19, the latest BA.5 variant remains the top driver of cases in the United States. New omicron-specific booster shots have recently become readily available, with health officials encouraging widespread inoculation ahead of an expected uptick in cases in the fall and winter months.
While upper respiratory symptoms are currently the most tell-tale sign of the virus, some changes in symptoms have been observed as the virus has evolved.
"We see a lot of things happening with the virus changing, you know," said Dr. Isaac Ghinai earlier this month, a medical director for the Chicago Department of Public Health who oversees COVID-19 testing and laboratory surveillance. "Omicron and its sub-lineages are an example of the virus changing a bit, and there are indications that different lineages of the virus can cause slightly different symptoms."
Ghinai said that differences in symptoms may also be impacted by the introduction of vaccines and their subsequent widespread utilization nearly one year into the pandemic.
"There are some indications for example, with omicron that the loss of taste and smell is less common than it was with some of the earlier lineages. All of this is also impacted probably by the fact that many more people are vaccinated than they were before," Ghinai said.
Regardless of the changes in symptoms, Ghinai said getting vaccinated and boosted can significantly improve symptoms of the virus if infected.
"Certainly, the severity of symptoms if you're vaccinated is much less and the severity of symptoms if you're boosted is even less, so that can kind of change how it looks," Ghinai said.
As for the symptoms that often stick around the longest? A cough.
"That's the thing that's going to last the longest, almost always," Chicago's top doctor Allison Arwady said at a press conference earlier this month. "A cough tends to be the most lingering effect. That's true whenever you have any viral infection. You can be feeling totally better, and you're still going to have some irritation."
According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, early symptoms of COVID typically include fatigue, headache, sore throat or a fever.
A study by researchers at the University of Southern California found fever may be first, as well as a cough and muscle pain. Then, those infected will likely experience nausea, vomiting or diarrhea. Unlike other respiratory illnesses such as MERS and SARS, COVID patients will likely develop nausea and vomiting before diarrhea, the researchers found.
Digestive symptoms, in some instances, may be the first sign someone has contracted COVID. They have been known to develop at the beginning of an infection, with respiratory symptoms possibly following a day later, according to an article from Emerson Health.
Still, some symptoms, such as shortness of breath, have become less prevalent as the virus continues to mutate. Dr. Sharon Welbel, the director of Hosptial Epidemiology and Infection Control for Cook County Health said earlier this month that fevers and coughs have become more common symptoms in recent months.
"In terms of symptoms and what people have it's been so incredibly heterogeneous," Welbel said. "I find with omicron we do know that still the most common is fever, cough - not so much shortness of breath anymore."
Experts do caution patients that the severity, or even the type, of initial symptoms can vary widely from person to person. "I think it's really variable depending from person to person," Welbel said. "It depends on age, it depends on comorbid illness, it depends on vaccine status, if one has been infected before potentially their you know, immune system is revved up more... So, I think that there's no way to protect it to predict it."
The CDC says that the median time for the appearance of symptoms in a patient with the different lineages of omicron could be just three days.
In general, symptoms will typically appear 2-to-14 days after exposure to the virus, according to the CDC. How long they last, however, can depend on the person, the severity of their infection and whether or not they end up with long COVID.
"Some people say they feel better in a day, some people say they still have lingering symptoms after three weeks," Welbel said.
Symptoms of the virus include:
-Fever or chills
-Shortness of breath
-Muscle or body aches
-New loss of taste or smell
-Congestion or runny nose
-Nausea or vomiting
Patients are urged to seek emergency medical attention if they experience:
-Persistent chest pain or pressure
-Inability to wake or stay awake
-Pale, gray, or blue-colored skin, lips, or nail beds