Seasonal influenza cases may still be relatively low, but they’re definitely on the increase. That’s the word from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The CDC reports the percent of outpatient visits for respiratory illness has trended upward.
“The numbers are increasing, and I expect us to have a usual flu season this year,” Dr. William Sistrunk, infectious diseases physician at Mercy Hospital Springfield, told KY3 News in Springfield, Mo. “We can’t compare to last year, because we did not have a flu season at all.”
The success of nearly quashing the flu in the most recent season, however, could now have the effect of wreaking havoc among the unvaccinated.
Dr. Farrin Manian, infectious disease specialist at Mercy Hospital St. Louis, tells the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, “If there’s a lot of influenza in a community, and we are exposed to it, our immune system can build up some ammunition, and that can spill over to next year’s flu season as well. But last year, we didn’t have that, so the main concern people have is that since our immune system didn’t see much influenza, then it’s possible that it’s not going to be as robust for this year’s influenza regardless of what strain it might be.”
Dr. Sistrunk says he expects the influenza season this year to peak in December or January, so now’s the time to get vaccinated if you haven’t done so already – and it’s possible to get both the COVID-19 and influenza vaccines on the same day.
“The symptoms of flu are very similar to COVID-19,” said Dr. Sistrunk. “So it’s important to differentiate exactly what virus you have if you have symptoms so you can be appropriately treated.”
Dr. Aamina Akhtar, an infectious disease specialist and chief medical officer at Mercy Hospital South, strongly advises people take no chances. "There are several things we can do to protect ourselves from the flu, but flu shots are the first line of defense,” Dr. Akhtar said. “They're not perfect, but they do offer proven protection and can lessen the effects of the flu virus if you do catch it.”
Dr. Akhtar added flu shots are especially important for vulnerable people, such as anyone with a chronic health condition, the elderly and children. Children often aren't as diligent at washing their hands, covering their coughs and other steps to prevent spreading the flu virus, which makes giving them their flu shot extra beneficial.
“In addition, it’s important for people to understand that a COVID vaccine will not protect against the flu, and vice versa,” said Dr. Paul Bean, a hospitalist and chief of medical affairs at Mercy Hospital Fort Smith. Each vaccine works differently, and he encourages those who have not received their COVID vaccinations to do so ahead of the impending flu season.
“Getting influenza and COVID at the same time will be catastrophic for some patients and would likely make any one disease much more severe,” Dr. Bean said.
The CDC, along with the Food and Drug Administration, agree that it’s OK to receive flu and COVID vaccines (including a booster) at the same time, which may be easier and more convenient for many people. Likewise, it’s fine to space them out.
Flu and COVID symptoms are similar. Cough, muscle aches, fatigue, fever, sore throat and runny nose often are present in both. A loss of taste or smell is common with COVID. If someone is experiencing any of the above symptoms, they should contact their primary care physician.
The viruses are spread in similar ways, so continued masking, social distancing and frequent hand washing can help prevent the spread of both.
“Masking will help reduce flu transmission like it did last year,” Dr. Bean added.
“I’ve heard some patients say they’ve never gotten a flu shot before, so why get one now?” Dr. Akhtar said. “The simple answer: COVID. The Delta variant has been aggressive and that, in addition to flu, could really lay people low. There’s no reason to take the risk. We’ve seen too many people die this past year. Our bodies can only take so much. Our immune systems need as much help as they can get. It’s imperative to get a flu shot this year, along with your COVID vaccine, if you haven’t already gotten them.”