The flu and COVID-19 can make fall and winter tough

TThe past two flu seasons in the US have been mercifully mild – one of the pandemic’s few silver linings, as COVID-19 Mitigation Measures probably also prevented many cases of influenza.

But our luck may run out this year. Australia, which often serves as an (imperfect) forecast of what’s to come for the US, had its own the worst flu season in half a decade this year, CNN reports. Flu season has also started early in Australia this year, another possible harbinger of what’s to come in the Northern Hemisphere.

Dr. Alicia Fry, chief of the Division of Epidemiology and Prevention in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) Influenza Division, warns that “if you’ve seen one flu season, you’ve seen one flu season” — meaning , that the virus is unpredictable and assumptions about it are not always accurate. “Whether it’s going to be a severe season or a mild season, or what to expect, or what viruses might be circulating — we really don’t know that,” Fry says.

Still, there are some factors that could set the U.S. up for a more serious flu season this year, says Dr. Brandon Webb, an infectious disease specialist at Intermountain Medical Center in Utah. The severity of the flu season varies widely from year to year, depending on factors including population immunity and which flu strain is circulating. “People who get the flu the year before probably carry some kind of incomplete or partial immunity,” explains Webb. Because few people have been infected in the past two flu seasons, “we’re seeing globally, and particularly in the U.S., record low levels of community immunity to influenza.”

The easing of COVID-19 mitigation measures such as maskingsocial distancing and remote working and learning could also allow the flu to spread as it did before the pandemic, Fry says.

Read more: You can still get a long run of COVID if you are vaccinated and boosted

The possibility of a severe flu season clashing with the still widely circulating SARS-CoV-2 virus is worrisome for the health care system, Webb says. “If we have even a moderate to high flu season that generates 300,000 or 400,000 hospitalizations and we also have to deal with a fall or winter COVID wave, that could put a strain on hospital systems across the country,” he says.

The best thing for people to do is to get vaccinated sooner rather than later, Fry says.

On September 1 federal health officials recommended that people 12 years of age and older are receiving a new bivalent COVID-19 booster that targets the currently circulating variants of Omicron. Updated shots are available for adolescents, teens and adults who have been at least two months since their last dose of the COVID-19 vaccine (although some experts recommend waiting slightly longer). Meanwhile, the CDC recommends getting a flu shot by the end of October.

“If a person wants to get both at the same time, they can,” says Fry. IN Press briefing on September 6, White House COVID-19 Response Coordinator Dr. Ashish Jha agreed. “I really believe that’s why God gave us two hands — one for the flu vaccine and one for the COVID vaccine,” he said.

Someday it may be even easier to get dual protection against COVID-19 and the flu. Vaccine manufacturers Modern and Novavax are working on injections that would target both viruses with a single injection. It’s unclear if and when these combination vaccines may be available, but their development offers a glimpse into what life with COVID-19 and flu may look like going forward.

Many unknowns remain even about this year’s looming flu season. Webb recommends keeping an eye on your COVID-19 and flu levels and taking appropriate precautions. People at higher risk of severe respiratory illness, including the elderly and people with co-morbidities, may consider wearing a mask in crowded areas.

At least one thing has Webb optimistic about this year’s flu season: For all the talk of pandemic fatigue, he thinks there’s a cultural shift in the way people deal with infectious diseases.

“People in general are now much more aware of the importance of infection control,” says Webb. “I hope we have a different culture in terms of recognizing that when you’re sick, it’s best to stay home.”

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Write to Jamie Ducharme c [email protected].

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