2020 flu season from a nurse practitioner’s perspective

A box of flu shots ready to be administered to patients. Erin Sundberg/Lariat

Walking into the pediatric clinic at Whatley Health Services, navigating through the coughing and sneezing of several patients with my surgical mask on, I find Renee Harris sitting in her office putting the final touches on the last patient’s chart for the day. The flu season has arrived with a vengeance. Harris, a pediatric nurse practitioner, sighs with relief that the day is over. 

“A normal day during the flu season consists of several walk-ins usually with a cough, lethargy, and extreme temps all the way up to 103 degrees,” Harris said as she wipes away the drop of sweat on her forehead. “I recommend everyone from six months old and above to get the flu shot.”

2020, the year of curveballs, brings a complication to the regular flu season. The COVID-19 pandemic is still running rampant in the United States and healthcare workers are hunkering down preparing for the the most daunting flu season to date. They are trying to save supplies to manage the chaos of the flu season.

Sanitary wipes and surgical masks are still on back-order as healthcare workers are continually attempting to avoid getting sick. Frequent handwashing and hand sanitizer doses are in every healthcare worker’s future. The seasonal flu and COVID-19 have similar symptoms, which makes the upcoming flu season more intimidating.

“Similarities are high fevers and coughs,” Harris said. “With pediatrics we’re seeing a lot of rashes with COVID-19 patients and you don’t normally see that with the flu.”

With COVID-19 and the flu, the illness is detected through a nasopharyngeal swab specimen. The flu test is rapid and the COVID-19 testing is getting faster. Both tests require people to get tested within three to four days of onset of seasonal illness for accurate results. 

“It’s difficult for pediatrics to get tested within the correct time frame because of parents’ schedules or children just not being able to voice what they’re feeling at the time,” Harris said. “We’ll run the test but we treat the symptoms regardless of what the test says.” 

Flu shots have started to be shipped to healthcare clinics across the United States. The demand for flu shots is expected to be higher this year than in the past due to the complication of COVID-19. Still, there are people who choose not to get their annual flu shot.

“I’d say 75% of the patients I see get the flu shot when they come see me,” Harris said. “It should be higher because if they don’t get the flu shot this year and then they get COVID-19, I have a feeling the symptoms are going to be more intense.”

At the clinic where Harris works there are several precaution policies in place to reduce the risk of exposure to both the flu and COVID-19. In the pediatrics unit, only one parent is allowed in the exam room. Staff, patients and parents must wear masks at all times and they are fully stocked on hand soap as well as hand sanitizer. 

Harris has been in the healthcare field for decades. Starting out as a certified nursing assistant, she quickly rose through the ranks completing her associate’s of science and her bachelor’s degree in nursing from Western Governor University online.

She then powered through and received her master’s degree in nursing from South University in Savannah, Georgia. Harris is now a certified nurse practitioner. She works Monday through Friday at the Maude L. Whatley location of Whatley Health Services. 

Harris has been working diligently for Whatley Health Services as a certified nurse practitioner since Oct. 2019. Whatley Health Services is a private non-profit community health center where Harris remains an integral cog in the machine that provides healthcare to people with Medicaid and the uninsured. 

Harris spends her off-time with her husband and children. She attends her son’s football games and her daughter’s gymnastic meets on the weekends. Her children went back to in-person middle school on Sept. 21. 

While Harris is more worried about this year’s flu season than others, she not only makes her kids get the flu shot but they also wear masks in their classes. She carries hand sanitizer at the kids’ sporting events to minimize the amount of germs they come in contact with. 

Harris believes that social distancing and masking up in public are necessary precautions until COVID-19 has a vaccination. A vaccine is in the works. 

“Researchers are testing 43 vaccines in clinical trials on humans, and at least 91 preclinical vaccines are under active investigation in animals,” the New York Times said in an article released on Sept. 25. 

Erin Sundberg, Editor at Large- Alabama