What is flu season likely to bring in an era of COVID-19?
The emergence of COVID-19 has brought with it a steep decline in another—but common—viral infection: the flu.
As the United States prepares for the 2021-22 influenza season that begins in October, questions abound regarding how to deal with the two viruses at the same time, including the safety and effectiveness of taking two different vaccines.
The bottom line is that most people need both vaccines to ensure the best health outcomes, according to Jason R. McKnight, MD, a clinical assistant professor with the Department of Primary Care and Population Health in the Texas A&M University College of Medicine.
“We’re talking about two different types of viruses,” he said. “Influenza is typically an infection of the upper respiratory tract, affecting your sinuses, nasal passages, upper airways and so on. While influenza can progress to your lungs and turn into pneumonia, that tends to occur mainly in chronically ill people or those with suppressed immune systems. Most people recover from the flu in about a week.”
COVID-19, on the other hand, can have similar symptoms, but more classically affects the lower respiratory tract. Some coronaviruses cause symptoms similar to the common cold, and are mild and clear up in a few days. Others, like Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) and COVID-19, can be lethal.
“Last year, the number of influenza cases in the United States and around the world dropped significantly,” McKnight said. “That’s because just about everyone was on board with wearing masks, washing their hands and social distancing. More people stayed home when they felt sick. So while some people did get the flu, we didn’t see the spikes or major outbreaks that we usually see.”
This year, he warns, might be very different.
“Over the last few months, the majority of people have become more relaxed and have returned to the way things were before COVID,” McKnight said.
As a result, McKnight predicts that the nation overall may see a more typical flu season this year.
“Despite this, people who practice safe habits could stay healthier,” he said. “If you continue to wear a mask and avoid large groups, then your individual risk even this year is fairly low. And if you experience any symptoms, it’s best to just stay home.”
McKnight also recommends that individuals get vaccinations for both influenza and COVID-19.
“Getting a flu vaccine is still the best way to keep from getting seriously ill if you are infected with influenza,” he said. “The same is true for the COVID-19 vaccine. People need both.”
There’s another important reason for getting both, McKnight said.
“The nation’s health care system already is strained by the care required for COVID-19 patients,” he said. “If we have to add the standard year’s-worth of flu cases and hospitalizations on top of that, we are all in for a long and sad winter.”