As the colder months draw in, we are fast approaching the time of year that has traditionally been known as ‘flu season’. During this time, many people sadly succumbe to the effects of flu and according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the 2018/19 influenza season in the US was linked to more than 35.5 million illnesses, more than 16.5 million 490,600 hospitalizations, and 34,200 deaths.
This year however, some public health officials are suggesting that people should ‘prepare for the worst’ as we look to enter flu season whilst still in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. As we have never experienced the two at the same time, experts are unsure exactly what will happen when the two collide.
The biggest concern is around the strain it could put on healthcare systems, particularly with regards to hospitalizations. We already know that both viruses can lead to serious respiratory distress and this could mean that those who are most seriously ill and in need of mechanical ventilation may not be able to get the treatment they need in time.
One expert, Jeanne Marrazzo, director of the infectious diseases division of the University of Alabama at Birmingham described the scenario as the ‘perfect storm’, as people revert to spending more time indoors, along with growing tired of the constant wearing of face masks, social distancing and handwashing. This combined with the natural increased prevalence of seasonal flu around this time of year delivers the perfect ingredients for a potential healthcare crisis.
Recent reports on the soaring levels of coronavirus cases in the US are naturally a cause for concern, as hospitalization numbers enter record figures. Whilst influenza is an illness which we know much about and can prepare for it as best we can, it is still considered ‘unpredictable’ by medical experts, as we simply don’t know what factors will influence whether we have a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ flu season. This is determined primarily by the numbers of cases and deaths which result from influenza.
Much like with COVID-19, those who are more susceptible to complications are the elderly and those with pre-existing medical conditions, but this does not mean that everyone else is exempt from their devastating effects. As we have seen, all ages groups have been affected by COVID-19 and each year there are also cases of younger, healthier people who have died from the flu. What is clear is that this is certainly not a time to rest on our laurels, and some medical professionals have stated that ‘if there was ever a year to get a flu shot, it is now’.
Further complexity is likely to come in determining whether someone actually has COVID-19 or influenza, as the symptoms are quite similar. It will mean that patients will need to be tested for both. It is also entirely possible to be infected by multiple viruses at the same time, and so there are fears that those infected with both COVID-19 and influenza are likely to have much more severe symptoms.
Despite valid concerns over what may happen in the coming months with regards to a ‘twindemic’, there are also some positive indicators that things may not be as catastrophic as they may seem. Experts tend to predict what might happen in the Northern Hemisphere, by analyzing how good or bad the flu season was in the Southern Hemisphere that year. This is because the Southern Hemisphere has it’s flu season in the middle of year, due to the differences in weather and seasons between the two hemispheres. Typically, flu season starts around May time and peaks in July, ending in October time.
Data from this year suggests that the Southern Hemisphere had a relatively mild flu season, which would indicate that the Northern Hemisphere could expect the same. However, this is by no means a hard and fast rule, so whilst it may provide a positive indicator, it’s not a green light to the next few months being an easy ride.
The general advice is to try and ensure you remain protected from both COVID-19 and influenza this year by following the guidance on keeping safe. This includes continuing to wear face masks, adhere to social distancing guidelines and to wash hands regularly. For those who have pre-existing medical conditions or may be more vulnerable to the effects of both COVID-19 and influenza, the advice is to ensure you have ‘flu jab’ to protect you from some of the more virulent strains that are around at this time of year. It may not stop you from getting the flu, as they are many different strains that aren’t protected by the vaccine, and of course you are not protected from getting COVID-19, but it could mean that your symptoms are less severe if you end up contracting both COVID-19 and influenza at the same time.