Fall is the season of colorful leaves, sweaters and scarves, and pumpkin-themed everything.
And, unfortunately, it’s also the beginning of flu season.
Though influenza viruses spread year-round, flu activity usually ramps up around October, peaks between December and February, and lasts until as late as May. In any given year, the flu season presents challenges, especially among those who are most vulnerable to complications.
Add in COVID-19, and many are wondering what to expect for this year’s flu season.
According to health experts, many factors could impact the severity of the 2020-2021 flu season, including:
- Transmission: The level to which the flu is passed from an infected to a previously uninfected person or group
- Co-infection: The frequency of which people become infected with both the flu and COVID-19 at the same time
- Vaccination: Flu vaccination rates, especially among older adults who are more susceptible to both illnesses
Because the severity of the flu season depends on a variety of factors, it’s hard to say exactly what this season will hand us. Here’s a look at a few possible scenarios.
Flu season could be better.
Let’s start with the good news: there is reason to be optimistic.
While not quite as contagious as COVID-19, the flu is still very easy to pass from person to person (called transmission). Like COVID-19, it’s often transmitted from someone who already has the flu to a healthy person through respiratory droplets, such as from a cough, sneeze, or while talking.
This year, due to COVID-19 recommendations and mandates, more people than ever before will be taking measures to protect themselves, such as social distancing, wearing masks, and frequent hand-washing.
We all know by now that one of the safest ways to protect yourself and others from COVID-19 is to stay home. Fortunately, social distancing policies that are meant to limit the spread of COVID-19 are also effective against the flu. And at this point, we’re all fairly accustomed to hunkering down, which will only get easier as winter weather is upon us.
Also, mask-wearing has become much more widespread (though, as a country, we still have some work to do in that area). Still, someone who is wearing a mask and has the flu may be less likely to pass on those infectious respiratory droplets, and someone who is wearing a mask but does not have the flu may be less likely to take in those droplets.
Finally, though hand-washing has always been critical to staying healthy, this safety measure has taken center stage during COVID-19. Because you can pick up flu germs from objects, such as a telephone or keyboard, and then transfer them to your nose, mouth, and eyes, this newfound (and hopefully permanent) appreciation for handwashing may help limit transmission of the flu.
Infectious disease experts often look to the Southern Hemisphere to predict the severity of the flu in the Northern Hemisphere. Likely because of these new layers of protection, the Southern Hemisphere has so far experienced a very mild flu season. In Australia, only around 21,000 cases of the flu were reported at the end of August — compared to over a quarter of a million at the same time last year.
But … flu season could be brutal.
Any year can be a bad year for the flu, even without a coinciding pandemic. Until the season officially hits, there’s no way of knowing just what kind of flu season is coming our way.
With a global pandemic at the same time, there are a host of other problems.
One of the biggest potential problems is the lack of medical resources. Since 2010, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that there are between 140,000 and 960,000 flu-related hospitalizations each year.
While the majority of patients with COVID-19 can recover at home, there is a fair share of patients who need hospital care. When the pandemic started, we learned quickly that our healthcare system wasn’t fully equipped to handle such a massive influx of patients. Hospitals were at full capacity (or more), ventilators were in short supply, and transmission of the disease to healthcare workers left many hospitals’ staffing in a lurch.
Fortunately, flu season was already winding down by that point, so there wasn’t much overlap between patients hospitalized for the flu and those hospitalized for COVID-19.
Now, however, we will be battling both diseases at the same time. Since COVID-19 is continuing to spread — and isn’t slated to go anywhere any time soon — there’s little hope that the number of cases requiring hospitalization will dwindle in the near future. Even a modest flu season could overwhelm our healthcare system once again.
This is where we have a problem. If hospitals were already overrun when it was just COVID-19 patients, are they going to have enough resources and personnel when they add in severe flu patients? Will every patient be able to get the care they need?
Maybe. Hopefully. But there is a very real risk of the answer being no.
Getting the flu and COVID-19 at the same time can mean serious trouble.
Do we really have to elaborate here?
Both the flu and COVID-19 can cause nightmarish symptoms. Having them together (called co-infection) significantly increases your risk of death. Though data is limited, one study in the UK showed that 43% of people with both the flu and COVID-19 died compared to 26.9% of those with just COVID-19.
Plus, becoming infected with one of the illnesses makes you more susceptible to getting sick with the other. Your body’s defenses are already down — and your body isn’t as capable of fighting off another virus.
It is so important to prevent the spread of the flu — and that includes getting a flu shot.
It’s always important to protect yourself and others from the flu. Even though most people recover from the flu, up to 79,000 people die from it every year.
Now, as we head into what’s already being called a “twin-demic”, we need to commit to preserving resources and keeping healthcare workers and our loved ones safe. And that means doing everything we can to avoid getting the flu.
The number one way to do this is to get your flu shot. Though flu vaccine effectiveness can vary, vaccines are one of the best-known protections against the flu. For instance, during the 2018 to 2019 flu season in the US, flu vaccines prevented an estimated:
- 4.4 million flu illnesses
- 2.3 million flu-associated medical visits
- 58,000 flu-associated hospitalized
- 3,500 flu-associated deaths
There are other ways to significantly reduce your risk of getting the flu, such as:
- Washing hands frequently with soap and water or antibacterial hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol
- Disinfecting high-touch surfaces and objects, such as doorknobs and railings
- Avoiding touching your eyes, nose, and mouth, as germs spread this way
- Staying away from others who have symptoms of the flu (and remember that you should stay home if you have symptoms, in order to protect others)
Do these techniques sound familiar? They should — since they are also some of the most well-known ways to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Add masks to the list and you can be sure that no matter what these next months bring, you’re doing your absolute best to protect yourself and everyone around you from both the flu and COVID-19.