Maybe you have a headache, or a stuffy nose, or a sore throat, or a cough. You might feel fatigued, achy, or a bit feverish. After the last year and a half, you might immediately think that you have COVID-19.
But those symptoms also describe the flu.
Autumn marks the beginning of flu season. That’s why flu testing has been integrated into Northeastern’s symptomatic COVID-19 testing protocols.
People who are experiencing flu- and COVID-like symptoms get tested at the Huntington Testing Center, where their swabs are now tested for COVID-19, influenza A, and influenza B. They don’t need to get two separate tests for COVID-19 and the flu. People without symptoms who are on the Boston campus are tested at the Cabot Testing Center once a week; their swabs are not part of this program.
“Last year the flu season was essentially nonexistent. We didn’t see very much flu at all,” says Jared Auclair, associate dean of professional program and graduate affairs in the College of Science and associate teaching professor in the department of chemistry and chemical biology at Northeastern. Scientists say that likely was due to mask-wearing, social distancing, and public health restrictions promoted by COVID-19. But this year, with crowds gathering again and masks coming off in many places, the medical community anticipates a surge in flu cases as the weather gets colder and social gatherings move inside more readily.
“We don’t want to have several patients with symptoms come to the testing site, get tested for COVID-19, only then it comes back negative,” says Auclair, who runs Northeastern’s COVID-19 testing facility, the Life Sciences Testing Center in Burlington, Massachusetts. “This way we can determine if it’s the flu. It allows us to make sure that we have a good handle on what we anticipate to be the two most prominent upper respiratory illnesses this season.”
From a patient’s perspective, nothing is different from a regular COVID-19 test for the combined COVID-19 and influenza test for symptomatic individuals. All they have to do is indicate their symptoms on their Daily Wellness Check form and make an appointment at the symptomatic testing center. There is only one swab involved. Just as with all other COVID-19 tests, that swab is sent to the Life Sciences Testing Center where it is tested for COVID-19, influenza A, and influenza B. The test results for all three will show up in the same portal as regular COVID-19 test results.
At the lab, the procedure for testing a sample for influenza is largely the same as conducting the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test for COVID-19. In that process, the scientists are looking for three genes unique to the coronavirus in a patient’s sample. The test works in such a way that if those genes are present in a patient’s sample, it will fluoresce in a particular color in the lab to indicate a positive COVID-19 case. Auclair’s team has tweaked the test so that a sample will instead glow in a second color if the marker of influenza A virus is present in the sample, or a third color if influenza B virus is present.
The combined testing doesn’t just help Northeastern keep tabs on major respiratory viruses in the campus community. It also makes it easier for patients to get treatment. Medical doctors can prescribe treatments such as Theraflu to patients who test positive for one of the influenza strains, and a single test for both the flu and COVID-19 could expedite that process.
“We’re adding that extra layer of security for our population,” Auclair says. “It’s really good for understanding what’s happening on campus in the age of COVID-19.”