Although COVID-19 is the concern for many parents as children prepare to return to classrooms in the coming weeks, the threat of influenza also looms, an El Paso pediatrician says.

Unlike the novel coronavirus, a vaccine is available to reduce the threat from influenza. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that everyone older than six months get the flu vaccine by the end of October

Dr. Rana Kronfol

Dr. Rana Kronfol, a pediatrician with El Paso Pediatric Associates and a board member of Providence Children’s Hospital, said vaccinating children against influenza is even more important during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We’re facing a pandemic with our hospitals being on the fuller side. And then you enter the flu season, which typically has also caused the hospitals to be on the fuller side. And so you worry about ICU space, you worry about hospital space, and that’s going to be our biggest concern,” Kronfol said.

El Paso’s flu season usually runs from October to March, with peaks in November and February, she said. Flu shots are free under most health insurance plans. 

Children under age 5, particularly those younger than 2, are at high risk of developing serious flu-related complications, according to the CDC. The vaccine offers the best defense against influenza for children, the health agency said.

“When the babies are young, they can get inflammation of their lungs. It’s called bronchiolitis and that can be pretty serious in the younger kids and it can cause them to need oxygen,” Kronfol said. “And so those children are admitted into the hospital while they need the oxygen for sure. We use breathing treatments to help with that. You can also start off with a viral process, which is the flu, and then get a secondary pneumonia on top of it.”

Myositis, an inflammation of the muscles, is another serious flu complication that impacts children.

The flu vaccine isn’t 100 percent effective in preventing infections, but can lessen the severity of the disease, Kronfol said. 

“What I always tell parents is it lessens the illness, so lessens the symptoms and makes it shorter. So if you are in school and the child next to you sneezes on you and has the flu, you’re still going to get the flu even if you’ve been vaccinated, because that’s a high viral load. So if you get that viral load, you’re still going to get sick,” Kronfol said. “But ideally, you get sick for 24 hours rather than, you know, a 10 to 14 day illness with respiratory complications, including pneumonia, asthma, and getting hospitalized for that.”

While the vaccine is the best protection against the flu for children, other steps can reduce the risk of spread. “We always encourage the flu vaccine. We encourage lots of handwashing, asking parents to keep their kids home if they’ve got high fevers, body aches and flu symptoms, because it can be also contagious,” Kronfol said.

The efforts to prevent the spread of COVID-19 — face coverings, frequent hand washing and social distancing — also could help limit the spread of the flu this fall and winter, Kronfol said.

“The theory is if we’re wearing masks to prevent COVID, we’ll also be preventing the spread of the flu. So I think the reason for optimism is definitely there, and I’m very hopeful that that will help,” she said.

But even with those safety practices, the influenza vaccine is crucial to protecting the health of children, Kronfol said.

“It’s available and so they can get it as soon as they want to, and it’ll last them the whole season. Some people feel like the immunity wears off. We actually don’t think it does. So even if you get it in September, it’ll still protect you in March,” she said.

Learn more about child flu vaccines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

The flu vaccine has proven to be safe, Kronfol and other health experts say.

“Once you get the vaccine, you build up immunity to the virus. And there’s always a discussion of, you know, when I get the vaccine, I get sick. And so I always preempt the discussion by saying that sometimes you can get some malaise from the vaccine and that’s your body fighting the vaccine, which is a good thing,” Kronfol said.

When both flu and COVID-19 are present in the community, parents will wonder which virus might be affecting a child with a temperature, cough or body aches. “Whether you have the flu or covid, if you’re presenting with fever and a cough, I think it’s important to quarantine for sure and protect the others that are around you also,” Kronfol said.

She said parents should seek medical treatment if their children show symptoms of flu or COVID.

“I always tell parents, if you’re concerned, we need to see your child. So we always kind of honor what the parents are saying because parents generally know when they need to be seen,” Kronfol said. “As far as guidelines, I usually say if the child has a high fever, 102 or higher, has a lot of body aches, is coughing a lot, having trouble breathing, those kids definitely need to be seen.” 

She said she has been impressed by the spirit of community shown by El Pasoans during the pandemic.

“I think we are developing a sense of community and protecting the community around you.  And getting a flu vaccine is also part of that. And so the silver lining, if there is one in this pandemic, is really seeing the community come together. And so part of protecting your neighbors is also getting the flu vaccine.”

Get vaccinated

Pharmacies and many physicians’ offices offer flu shots that are free under most insurance policies.

For people without a regular health-care provider, Immunize El Paso offers two locations for flu shots: 1580 George Dieter #103 and 6292 Trowbridge. Flu vaccines are free under most insurance policies; for those without insurance, the flu vaccine costs $10 for children and $30 for adults. More information: (915) 533-3414.

Cover photo courtesy of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Robert Moore is the founder and CEO of El Paso Matters. He has been a journalist in the Texas Borderlands since 1986.