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How do I know if I have COVID or the flu? Where can I get the bivalent vaccine in Berkshire County? We talk with Berkshire Medical Center expert Dr. James Lederer

Dr. James Lederer in a mask and a tan suit jacket

Dr. James Lederer, the chief medical officer at Berkshire Medical Center in Pittsfield, says the key to avoiding serious illness at this point of the COVID-19 pandemic is to continue to take precautions.

PITTSFIELD — The Berkshire Eagle sat down this week with Dr. James Lederer of Berkshire Medical Center to discuss COVID-19 trends, the start of the flu season and what people can do to protect their health.

Lederer, the hospital’s chief medical officer, said the number of COVID-19 inpatients is up slightly. He says that while a new vaccine is readily available that helps prevent the omicron strain of the virus, people are not rushing to get it.

The key to avoiding serious illness, he said, is to take precautions.

“If you are a patient with any significant medical underlying illness, lung disease, cancer, diabetes, heart disease, if you anticipate going into crowded settings, consider a mask, wash your hands frequently, use hand sanitizer,” he said. “Avoid going around people who are obviously sick.”

Q: What are the COVID-19 and flu trends in Berkshire County at the moment?

A: COVID is pretty much where it’s been for months on end. There’s a hint that it’s starting to trend upward a little bit. We have more inpatients than we’ve had in quite some time. We normally have about 8 to 12 inpatients and I think today we have 18.

We are seeing the beginnings of some flu, we would expect that to go up as well, as it normally does ... [in] early winter into the later winter. It’s hard to know what will happen. Will people respond to the need to get flu shots this year?

CHP mobile health unit visits francis plaza (copy) (copy)

In February, CHP’s Mobile Health Unit visited senior housing locations in Pittsfield.

We’re not seeing a great uptake with the bivalent vaccines that are now available. We are seeing people, obviously who want them and are coming to get them and we’re there to provide them. But I thought there would be much more demand because they have that added benefit of covering the omicron strain.

We are seeing more pediatric illnesses. We are seeing more adult non-COVID, non-flu illness. What that means is we’re more comfortable walking around without masks, not washing our hands or distancing as much.

Q: What are your recommendations?

A: If you are a patient with any significant medical underlying illness, lung disease, cancer, diabetes, heart disease, if you anticipate going into crowded settings, consider a mask, wash your hands frequently, use hand sanitizer. Avoid going around people who are obviously sick.

If you’re going to have a Thanksgiving dinner and your sister and her family are all ill, consider what that might mean to you. The flu is going to be here, COVID is still here. There are some new concerns from Europe that suggest that there’s emerging strains that aren’t covered by any of the vaccines available.

Q: How do we distinguish COVID from flu and from a common cold?

A: It’s hard. COVID can be a very mild illness or it can be a more significant illness. Flu generally has high fevers, muscle aches and headache, but that’s not unlike COVID either.

The common cold is generally much more mild — runny nose, scratchy throat. But some of the cases that we’re seeing in people who have been vaccinated look just like COVID. Symptoms alone aren’t going to help you; testing is the way to get an answer.

Q: What do we know about the possibility of having COVID and the flu together?

A: It would be uncommon. Once your body is infected with a viral illness, the inflammatory response the immune system secretes develops a response that keeps all viruses away.

So once you’re infected with one, it’s not likely that you’ll get another one while you’re sick.

Now, clearly, as you’re recovering from COVID, if you’re exposed to flu or anything else out there, you can get that as well.

That would not be unexpected when the flu season is more deeply ingrained in December through February. Those are the months that you start to see the real uptick in flu cases. It’s very early in the season now. We’re hoping a lot of people are getting their flu vaccine.

Visit this website to find out where to get a flu shot: www.vaccines.gov/find-vaccines

To find places where to get a COVID vaccine, visit this website: vaxfinder.mass.gov

Aina de Lapparent Alvarez can be reached at aalvarez@berkshireeagle.com.

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