‘You never think you’re going to die from it, but Lacie is proof you can.’
Haywood County mom Roz Fisher never dreamed she’d lose her child to the flu. But her daughter Lacie—a vibrant 15-year-old cheerleader—died last December from complications of the virus and sepsis. As Fisher began to process her loss, the one thing she couldn’t reconcile was how her otherwise healthy child succumbed to an illness many take for granted as being survivable.
“When you think about the flu, you just don’t think about dying,” said Fisher. “It’s something you don’t expect—you hear somebody has the flu, and you know that’s not good, but you think you’re just going to feel bad for a few days. You never think you’re going to die from it, but Lacie is proof you can.”
According to Centers for Disease Control estimates, somewhere between 24,000 and 62,000 Americans died of flu during the 2019-2020 season, which ended in April. And according to North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services data, nearly 200 North Carolinians died of flu or flu-related complications last season.
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One of the factors that likely led to Lacie’s death was that she did not receive a flu vaccination, which can prevent or reduce the severity of flu infections. And as the COVID-19 pandemic remains at the forefront of most people’s concerns, some health professionals worry people may not take flu as seriously this year.
“I know that there’s a lot of COVID fatigue and being tired of masking and social distancing,” says Dr. Sachin K. Gupta, executive medical director at UNC Physicians Network. “I know it’s taking a toll, but we need to remain vigilant, doing all the right things like getting your flu shot.”
So far this flu season has been relatively quiet, with only one death recorded in North Carolina as of this writing. But physicians warn that doesn’t indicate the season will continue to be mild.
“We’re still very early on, and we have seen sporadic cases,” said Dr. Katie Passaretti, an infectious disease physician with Atrium Health in Charlotte. “Flu season has been a little late the last three to four years. Typically we start seeing a bit of uptick at the end of November and into December, and the peak is generally in the January through February timeframe.”
And coupled with the pandemic, the flu season could push already-stressed health systems to the brink as more people require hospitalization during the winter.
“We are definitely headed into very dangerous territory in regard to the COVID pandemic,” said Passaretti. “North Carolina hasn’t been as bad as other areas of the country, but we’re starting to see that more concerning upward trend, and that’s before we even start entering flu season. We really encourage people to take this seriously now, or we will get into dangerous territory with hospital capacity.”
Passaretti also warns it’s possible for patients to suffer from both COVID-19 and the flu simultaneously, or for COVID survivors to be more at risk for complication from the flu due to possible lung damage from the coronavirus.
“We entered this COVID pandemic at the tail end of flu season last year, and we saw the dual infection would have a more significant illness, a higher severity of illness,” she said.
The one silver lining, according to Gupta, is that COVID prevention measures such as wearing masks, social distancing and washing hands may help reduce the spread of other diseases, like flu. And he also has seen patients more receptive to getting a flu shot this year.
“Because of COVID, people are a little more sensitive to what’s going on out there, and I’ve seen an uptick in patients getting the flu shot,” he said. “People are getting it earlier, and those conversations aren’t as difficult as they’ve been in the past.”
And while some may still resist getting the vaccine, Fisher warns that getting a flu shot can literally be a life-or-death decision.
“I know a lot of people don’t like to have it because they feel like they get the after-effects of it,” she said. “But those little effects are nothing compared to dying.”