The importance of primary care and flu and COVID-19 vaccines

As COVID-19 cases surge throughout Greater Houston and the U.S., and with flu season around the corner, primary care physicians are urging people to act to prevent illness. James Truong, MD, a family medicine physician with Memorial Hermann Medical Group Clear Lake, advises people to partner with a primary care doctor and get vaccinated against the flu and COVID-19.

Q: Why is it important to see your primary care physician regularly?
Dr. Truong: Primary care physicians look at the complete health of individuals. We help you when you are sick, but we also help you when you are well, to understand your health and prevent disease or illness. We strive to build trust with patients and guide them to better health. The more we know about patients' health over time, the more likely we are to catch a problem early, when it's more manageable or treatable.

Q: What does an annual physical involve?
Dr. Truong: We examine patients from head to toe. In our MHMG primary care practice, we see patients from 5 years old and older, and we tailor annual exams to the age of patients and also consider their personal and family histories. I discuss each patients' health goals with them and offer a plan that includes vaccines and screenings to achieve those goals. We record their weight, blood pressure, heart rate and oxygen levels. I examine their skin, eyes, mouth, heart, lungs, belly and so forth.

Annual exams also include lab work to check blood for irregularities. I also evaluate patients' mental health and their lifestyle to uncover unhealthy nutrition, smoking, drug and alcohol abuse, and high-risk sexual behaviors.

Q: What health screenings are recommended?
Dr. Truong: Most screenings are recommended by age and gender.

Children's health screenings
Children are screened annually for vision and hearing problems, along with growth and developmental delays. They also receive vaccinations, according to recommended vaccine schedules.

Women's health screenings
Beginning at age 21, women with an average risk for cervical cancer should have a Pap test every three years, according to the United States Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF). Beginning at age 30, these women should have an HPV (human papillomavirus) and Pap co-test every 5 years. Women with an average risk of breast cancer should get yearly mammograms beginning at age 40. Post-menopausal women should also have a bone density scan at 65 to determine their risk of osteoporosis.

Men's health screenings
The USPSTF recommends men with an average risk for prostate cancer get tested at age 55. This screening checks the amount of PSA, or prostate-specific antigen, in the blood. High levels of this protein may indicate prostate cancer. At 65, men should also be screened for an abdominal aortic aneurysm, which can rupture the aorta and cause serious complications and death.

Colon Cancer screenings
Men and women with an average risk for colon cancer should have a colonoscopy at age 45 to check for polyps. At-home stool collection kits that detect blood in the stool, which may indicate colon cancer, are also available.

Lung Cancer screenings
Men and women who have smoked the equivalent of 20 "pack years" (i.e., one pack of cigarettes a day for 20 years or two packs of cigarettes a day for 10 years) should have a low-dose CT lung cancer screening, beginning at age 50.

Q: What vaccines are recommended on a regular basis?
Dr. Truong: Since protection from the flu vaccine declines over time, individuals 6 months and older should get the vaccine annually. This schedule also protects against flu strains that emerge each year. Similarly, we see declining protection with COVID-19 vaccines, and the FDA is now considering authorizing a booster shot for the general population. The FDA has already recommended a COVID-19 booster vaccine for patients who have a weakened immune system or cancer.

Q: When should vaccines be administered for maximum protection?
Dr. Truong: All vaccines have a recommended dosing schedule. For the COVID-19 vaccine, the time is now, if you are eligible. The CDC recommends getting the flu vaccine by the end of October to ensure maximum protection against the flu. Children who need two doses of the flu vaccine should receive their first dose before the end of September, since the doses must be given at least 4 weeks apart.

Q: Why are vaccinations needed?
Dr. Truong: Vaccines protect us from getting sick or from experiencing complications from infections. Like the flu vaccine, the COVID-19 vaccine has been shown to reduce the chance of hospitalization and death in vaccinated individuals. Most COVID-19 hospitalizations are currently among the unvaccinated. We encourage vaccination against COVID-19 and the flu.

Q: What's the difference between a cold, the flu and COVID-19?
Dr. Truong: The symptoms of each are similar at the onset. They include fever, nasal congestion, cough and sore throat. With a cold, symptoms are mild and improve after a few days. With the flu, symptoms may also include severe muscle aches and fatigue. Vaccinated individuals usually improve in a few days. With COVID-19, flu-like symptoms can be accompanied by shortness of breath, chest pain, nausea or vomiting, diarrhea and loss of taste and smell.

Q: How can we protect unvaccinated individuals against COVID-19?
Dr. Truong: Get the vaccine, wear a mask, socially distance, stay home when you are ill, disinfect high-touch surfaces and wash your hands frequently.

To find a primary care physician, visit MemorialHermann.org. To learn about COVID-19 vaccines available at Memorial Hermann hospitals or walk-in clinics, visit COVID-19 Vaccine Walk-In Clinics.