What will happen when COVID-19 collides with flu season?

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Leer en español: ¿Qué pasará con COVID-19 al entrar la temporada de influenza?

With COVID-19 cases still rising in Utah, local health experts highly recommend that people get a flu shot this year. (Photo illustration by Rebekah Baker/BYU Photo)

Influenza activity is currently low in the U.S. and globally, but local health experts are still concerned about how this year’s flu season will play out in combination with COVID-19.

The CDC released a report on Sept. 18 stating that during the summer of 2020, there was a historically low number of influenza cases in the U.S., and countries in the Southern Hemisphere, like Australia and Chile, had very low influenza activity during their winter (June-August). 

The CDC attributed these low levels to measures implemented to mitigate the transmission of COVID-19 — like social distancing, mask-wearing and frequent hand washing. 

But as Utah County is seeing a significant rise in COVID-19 cases recently, BYU public health professor Chantel Sloan said it is hard to tell what this year’s flu season will look like.

“Normally, we track what is happening in places like Australia during their winter as a little bit of a bellwether. But because they were on a stricter lockdown, they didn’t have as big of a flu season,” she said. “So we’re not really sure exactly how bad this flu season is going to be.”

BYU biology professor Brian Poole said since influenza and COVID-19 are both respiratory illnesses and transmitted in similar ways, areas that still have rising cases of COVID-19 will most likely also have high levels of influenza.

Poole said while it is possible to get the flu and COVID-19 at the same time, it is unlikely. His main concern is that the circulation of two dangerous viruses at once will put additional strain on the U.S. healthcare system.

Sloan said historically, healthcare professionals are used to having a peak in hospital usage during cold and flu season.

“Normally, we handle flu season pretty well, unless it’s a really tough strain. But this year, our resources are so stretched,” she said. “Adding (flu season) on top of the strain that COVID-19 has put on hospitals is just a really bad recipe.” 

Sloan said she could imagine a lot of different nightmarish situations, like hospitals getting understaffed or running out of resources like personal protective equipment.

“It really strains every segment of the healthcare system, from medical supplies to testing to actual clinical treatment,” Sloan said.

To prevent this healthcare strain, Sloan recommends people follow the same precautions that they have been for COVID-19 (stay home if you are sick, wear a mask, wash your hands often). But Sloan also highly recommends that people get a flu shot. 

“If we get the same amount of flu this fall that we usually do, then we’re going to fill our hospitals with flu and there won’t be enough hospital space for people with COVID and vice versa,” said BYU Student Health Center Medical Director Keith Willmore. 

Poole said while the flu shot is not as effective as other vaccines because the influenza virus mutates so quickly, which is why there is a different vaccine each year, the vaccine can still make a significant difference. If someone gets the flu shot and still catches the flu, Poole said, the flu shot cuts their risk of dying by at least half and they are less likely to spread it to other people. 

Willmore said while young college students are unlikely to get sick with the flu and end up in the hospital, getting a flu shot can help protect other people who are high risk, like elderly adults or people with other health problems.

If someone is quarantined because they have COVID-19 or have been exposed to it, Willmore said they should wait until they are out of quarantine to get a flu shot. This is to prevent healthcare workers from getting sick and because it is unknown what would happen if someone receives a flu shot with an active case of COVID-19.

“Most likely there’s not a big concern because the flu shot is a dead vaccine — it’s not a live virus, it’s a dead virus. But we don’t know if that would be dangerous to the person,” Willmore said.

Willmore said BYU students and staff who would like a flu shot can get one at BYU Student Health Center’s annual Flu Shot Clinic, which runs this year from Sept. 28 through Oct. 2.

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