MONDAY, Sept. 21, 2020 (HealthDay News) -- Aches and fatigue quickly progressed to fever with severe chills, but the terrible and unrelenting headache was the real signal that actress Rita Wilson was in for a rough ride following her infection with COVID-19.
"It was a massive headache that really lasted for about two weeks," Wilson recalls. "It was relentless. It wasn't like Tylenol was making it go away or anything like that. It was just there."
Wilson and her husband Tom Hanks, both 63, became two of the first celebrity sufferers of COVID-19 back in early March, while on a movie set in Australia.
The news of their infection, which Hanks revealed on social media on March 11, combined with the shutdown of the NBA season, elevated public awareness of COVID as a health threat, Wilson recalls.
"I think the one-two punch of that made people realize that this was probably something to be taken very seriously," Wilson said.
COVID-19 remains a public health threat, and Wilson now is using her status as a celebrity patient to warn against a potential "twindemic" of influenza and COVID that could endanger lives and swamp the U.S. health care system this winter.
Wilson is teaming up with the American Nurses Association (ANA) to promote the "Race to 200 Million," a program that promotes flu vaccination for everyone and especially for older people with chronic conditions that place them at higher risk for severe infections of either influenza or COVID.
Fewer than half of Americans get their flu shot in any given year, and this last flu season resulted in as many as 740,000 hospitalizations and 62,000 deaths, according to the ANA.
COVID-19 and the flu have very similar symptoms, and some unfortunate souls could even suffer the double whammy of a simultaneous infection of COVID and influenza, the association says.
There's one major difference between the two viruses, however -- there's a vaccine for the flu.
"I had COVID-19, and certainly don't want to get that again," Wilson said. "Also, I don't want to get the flu. I am a believer in flu shots. I take them myself."
An unexpected illness
Wilson said she and her husband were completely taken by surprise with their COVID diagnosis in March.
"What was so strange was that I was really so careful," Wilson said. "That was before masks were required, but I wasn't shaking hands. I was social distancing. Sometimes people would come close to you for a second or so, but we were very conservative about how we were approaching it. That was what was so puzzling, was even though you're doing all the right things and you're not out there partying, you can still get COVID-19."
Wilson and Hanks were placed in separate quarantine rooms in a Queensland hospital, which kept them from directly observing how the COVID-19 pandemic unfolded in Australia.
"I could tell by the looks on the nurses' faces and on my doctor's face that they were bracing themselves for something that could be really bad," Wilson recalls. "They were definitely having to make more rooms for COVID patients, and they were setting up things like fever centers so people could go and get tested."
It took Wilson about three weeks to get over the major symptoms of COVID, which did not abate even after she'd left the hospital.
"When I got back from the hospital, after three days it kicked into another gear, which was really unexpected," Wilson said.
Her case wound up being much worse than that of her husband, with nausea, vomiting and extreme fatigue.
"I had vertigo and I lost my sense of taste and smell, which eventually came back after two months," Wilson said. "At that point, people didn't even know that was something that was a symptom of COVID-19."
The pandemic has offered Wilson one silver lining: It has given her a chance to focus on her career as a singer and songwriter.
"For me, the quarantine has been creative," Wilson said. "I've been able to write a lot of music and actually record stuff, just with everybody doing it in their own home studios and putting it all together in a way that thankfully technology can make happen. I'm thankful to have people that I can write with and be creative with."
Recently, Wilson released a single titled, "When This Is Over." The tune "could be about any sort of hardship, but certainly applies to the period of time we're in right now, where we have COVID and we're looking at things in a different way and we're reflecting on what we want our lives to look like when this is over," she said.
Campaign could cut chances of 'twindemic'
In the meantime, there's a very real risk that hospitals in any region of the United States that falls prey to a flu/COVID twindemic will quickly become overwhelmed, said Debbie Hatmaker, chief nursing officer of the American Nurses Association.
"If we are filling up hospitals with COVID-19 cases at the same time we're dealing with a bad flu season, then that really is going to put a strain on our system," Hatmaker said. "What we can prevent, we absolutely want to try and do."
Hatmaker herself went to the pharmacy the week before last and got a flu shot, in what proved to be a quick and effortless process.
"The health care system, we saw what happens when it is overwhelmed with COVID," Wilson said. "We saw what burden it put on nurses and doctors and emergency rooms. So it was important for me to make sure I could communicate that there's a simple thing you can do to at least not get the flu and overwhelm hospitals, because COVID is still going to be around in the fall and the winter."
The "Race to 200 Million" refers to the number of people in the United States who are older than 50 or suffer from a chronic condition that could put them more at risk for hospitalization. These conditions include asthma, heart disease, diabetes and lung disease, the ANA says.
People who are reluctant to get the flu shot or have questions about it should talk with their doctor, Wilson encouraged.
"It is a personal choice, obviously, but if you're at high risk at all I wouldn't even give it a second thought, unless you never plan on leaving your house and going anywhere," Wilson said.
"This one time I got the flu over Christmas and there was no holiday to be had," Wilson continued. "There was no Christmas. There was no opening gifts. There was no family coming over. A couple of people in the family had it, and we were completely shot and exhausted on a couch, never waking up, not eating turkey dinner. It was pretty brutal."
The American Nurses Association has more about the Race to 200 Million.
SOURCES: Rita Wilson, Los Angeles; Debbie Hatmaker, Ph.D., R.N., chief nursing officer, American Nurses Association