As the US enters its winter months and prepares for a potential second Covid-19 surge, experts are suggesting that the flu season may be less severe than normal. The theory is that social distancing, mask wearing and general pandemic attitudes will slow the spread of the flu in comparison to previous years.
There has already been evidence of this in Australia, who have already had their winter months and witnessed the lightest flu season for many years. Experts are still suggesting that everyone take any and all precautions they can, including getting a flu shot as soon as possible.
“It’s absolutely because of the precautions we are taking,” CNN Medical Analyst and emergency physician Dr. Leana S. Wen said in an earlier interview. “The same precautions that protect us against coronavirus also protect against cold, flus and respiratory pathogens.”
“It’s the fact you’re keeping your distance, wearing a mask, washing your hands more, that you’re attentive that someone might have the illness and not know it,” said Wen, who is a professor of public health at George Washington University.
“In the past, it might have been acceptable to be sneezing and cough a little and still go to work or school, and now that would not be acceptable,” she said. “That reduces the risk of transmission, too.”
“Right now, there’s a coronavirus storm all over the country,” Wen said. “The virus is surging in most parts of the country. We are entering an extremely concerning time for (Covid-19). This is the time for us to be hunkering down — what’s been driving the most recent surge is gatherings with family and friends.”
“There is no coronavirus vaccine but there is a flu vaccine, and it’s important for us to do the things that we can,” Wen said. “With what’s essentially the twindemics of the flu and coronavirus, get the vaccine to protect at least against one.”
According to the CDC, flu season reaches its peak between the months of December and February, but activity can continue as late as May. The overall health impact (e.g. infections, hospitalizations, and deaths) of a flu season varies from season to season and it is expected that this year will see a decrease in activity, but the effects may be worse than usual due to the strain that the coronavirus pandemic is placing on the country.
Since Covid-19, the flu and the common cold share some symptoms — including headaches, body aches and feeling generally unwell – Wen said it’s going to be “extremely difficult to sort out who has what, especially with the limited testing that we have.”
“These respiratory pathogens have a seasonal pattern,” Wen said. “They increase in spread when people are congregating indoors more. Viruses can linger longer when there’s less humidity in the air, and colder weather in the winter means less humidity indoors.”
It is not only the flu virus that is an issue in the winter months as a number of other respiratory viruses also circulate more than usual during the flu season. These can cause symptoms and illnesses that are similar to those seen as a result of a flu infection. These additional viruses include one cause of the common cold, rhinovirus, as well as respiratory syncytial virus (RSV). RSV can be a very dangerous illness and is the leading cause of severe respiratory illness in young children as well as a leading cause of death from respiratory illness in those aged 65 years and older.
The CDC recommends that those vulnerable to complications from the flu get a vaccine as early as possible. This includes anyone aged 65 or over, as well as those with asthma, heart disease, diabetes and other illnesses. Young children, pregnant women and those with terminal illness are also at a higher risk. People from certain racial and ethnic minority groups are at increased risk for hospitalization with flu, including non-Hispanic Black persons, Hispanic or Latino persons, and American Indian or Alaska Native persons.
You can visit the CDC website to find out more information on those that are at an increased risk to hospitalization, as well as what can be done to mitigate the risks of catching the flu.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, noted that Australia had the fewest number of flu cases “in memory” during its winter flu season, from April to September.
“They almost, as they call it, had an absent flu season,” said Fauci, speaking with Washington, DC, radio station WTOP on September 17. “The theory is that all the precautions they took to contain the pandemic actually “averted a flu season.”
“If you look at the data over many years about flu vaccines, they’re not perfect,” Fauci said. “We know from the data that flu shots not only prevent infections; they prevent people who do get infected from getting serious progressive disease sometimes resulting in hospitalization.”