While social distancing and wearing masks kept last year’s flu season at an all-time low, experts expect flu cases will soar this year as students return to school and employees go back to the office. Healthcare systems are concerned they may be overwhelmed by influenza and COVID-19.
David Cennimo, an infectious disease expert at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, discusses what you should do to protect yourself during the upcoming flu season.
What can we learn from last flu season and what should we expect this year?
The low case numbers show that COVID-19 mitigation measures such as wearing face masks, staying home, hand washing, school closures, reduced travel, increased ventilation of indoor spaces and physical distancing worked. Pediatric deaths fell from 199 children in the 2019–20 flu season to only one death this year.
Based on what we are currently seeing for other respiratory infections, like respiratory syncytial virus, which is coming back with a vengeance, I expect we will see a resurgence of influenza at above-average levels this year.
How are the coronavirus and the flu similar and different?
Both spread predominantly through respiratory droplets and contact. There seem to be more asymptomatic cases of coronavirus than influenza, but both are capable of being spread before a person knows they are infected – about one to two days before any symptoms appear. Influenza contagiousness is usually over within a week while coronavirus is around 10 days. Both can cause a spectrum of illness ranging from mild to critical illness and death.
Who is especially vulnerable for contracting the flu?
Everyone 6 months of age or older is at risk, but it is especially important for those who are at higher risk for complications and mortality. The CDC estimates that 70 percent to 90 percent of annual flu deaths are in people over 65. People with chronic conditions, like heart disease, fare worse when they have the flu and can suffer heart attacks.
As we have seen with COVID-19, people can have the flu, not realize it and gravely affect someone vulnerable, like the elderly, children and those who have an impaired immune system, such as cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy and people with HIV or pulmonary disease.
Although instances have been rare, you can contract COVID-19 and the flu simultaneously, which could result in a much worse condition. On the health care side, having both viruses circulating makes diagnosis difficult. If you contract the flu, you will have to quarantine and be tested to rule out COVID-19.