Amid the frenetic din of American society this fall, from the rising COVID-19 death toll, economic turmoil and a topsy-turvey political season, medical professionals are pleading with nearly all residents to get vaccinated against the flu as soon as possible to protect against a new double wave of hospitalizations stressing medical care capacity.
As more Americans in the northern states return to schools, workplaces and spend more time indoors, where both flu and the coronavirus spread most easily, doctors and nurses are trying to sound the alarm of heightened personal health dangers of a “co-infection” of flu and COVID-19, as well as the fears of a new spike in hospitalizations from the two respiratory viruses.
There may be some encouraging signs in the outlook for the coming flu season. Mask wearing and social distancing because of fears about the coronavirus seem certain to tamp down the spread of the flu this year, to some extent.
In some parts of the Southern Hemisphere, where it is currently winter, the flu season has been less severe than would typically be seen. Likewise, doctors say they are already seeing fewer cases of the common cold, asthma and pneumonia in recent months than typical, also a likely result of social distancing and personal protections against contracting coronavirus.
Greatly reduced international and domestic travel may also restrict the pace at which a resurgent virus will spread throughout the U.S.
But doctors say that the flu virus will still, undoubtedly, find its way back into the population, and with children back in school, nobody should be counting on a mild season to protect them or their loved ones.
“The seasonal flu was here long before air travel — it never goes away,” said Dr. Suni Sood, an infectious disease expert with Northwell Health. “You get flu cases in summer and most viruses have a reservoir in nature where it can hide out. Temperature and humidity might have something to do with it, but the seasonal nature of flu is probably more due to the fact that people are closer to each other indoors in the winter.”
And as it finds its way back into the list of maladies circulating in society again, it will bring with it a host of new problems in light of the ongoing COVID-19 epidemic.
Melody Butler is a registered nurse and the head of the vaccination advocacy group Nurses Who Vaccinate. She says that the ill-effects of flu and COVID-19 are damaging enough on their own, but that if someone were to contract both viruses, either at the same time or in succession, the effects could be even more devastating than what was seen among those who came down with severe cases of COVID-19 in the spring.
“When you have flu, it leaves you predisposed to developing pneumonia, so when you combine that with the prevalence of COVID circulating, you’ll have a double whammy risk if someone contracts both,” she said. “How much damage can their lung tissue take?”
The coronavirus pandemic has also put a number of hurdles in the path of those trying to bolster community immunity to the flu. Social distancing concerns have made the logistics of flu shot drives more complicated, Ms. Butler said, and as colder weather and seasonal storms become more frequent, it makes it more difficult for people to wait in line outside mobile flu shot facilities.
Also, she noted, many people would typically get their flu shot through a group program at their office — something they may not be availed of this fall if they are working from home.
And so it may well fall on public education efforts through social media and public appeals to spur more people to seek out flu vaccinations.
The annual flu vaccine, which is typically a cocktail of vaccines for the four varying strains of influenza that circulate each year, is often the target of scoffs for effectiveness rates that are said to be between 30 and 60 percent. But doctors note that the vaccine may be more effective against certain strains and that it is shown to be far more effective at reducing the severity of illness if a vaccinated person still contracts the flu — a point of particular benefit when COVID-19 co-infection is a consideration.
New respiratory infection panels are being developed that will be able to test for both influenza and COVID-19, along with about a dozen other potential respiratory ailments, from a single sample.
Dr. Sood suggested that medical centers will be encouraging heightened vigilance about illness and more frequent testing of children this winter.
“Children are our baseline concern for all viruses,” he said. “With [COVID-19] adults are much more severely affected, the potential danger of children spreading it to adults is greater.”
Ms. Butler said that the ideal time to get the flu vaccine is early in the fall. It takes about two weeks for the vaccination to help build the necessary immunity and flu season usually sets in early fall. At the very least, anyone who will be visiting elderly relatives at Thanksgiving should get their flu vaccination at least two weeks prior to protect more vulnerable seniors.
“We are really trying to hammer home the importance of getting the shot since there are a lot of hurdles this year,” Ms. Butler said. “We’re seeing a lot of people hesitant to go to a doctors office, so a lot of organizations are trying to think outside the box: like organizing drive-by clinics where you just pull up in your car and stick your arm out the window to get your shot. Whatever the method, every opportunity to prevent or lessen these diseases can be crucial.”