Precautions and restrictions designed to prevent the spread of COVID-19 actually also helped prevent the spread of the flu, a respiratory illness caused by influenza viruses, during the 2020 flu season. This time last year, health experts were concerned that the U.S. would experience a “twindemic” with COVID and the flu, but that didn’t happen, likely due to a combination of mask wearing, social distancing, most schools being closed and overall reduced travel.
But this year, many of those precautions and restrictions are no longer in effect, and the flu is expected to circulate more widely.
Dr. Arnold Monto, world-renowned influenza expert at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, says that the flu is extremely difficult in a normal year -- and this certainly has not been a normal year.
Experts generally look to the southern hemisphere to help predict our flu season in the northern hemisphere, as our summer is their winter. But this year, Monto says that there hasn’t been much flu spread in the southern hemisphere.
“Australia and New Zealand have been totally isolated from the rest of the world,” Monto said. “They haven’t seen any flu season now for two of their winters. South Africa had a big COVID outbreak right when they would usually get the flu, and they didn’t see hardly any flu.”
The lack of data has made picking the strains for this year’s flu vaccines more challenging -- especially since that decision had to be made in March. This year’s flu shots include two updates, but it remains to be seen how well they will match up with the flu viruses that actually end up circulating this winter.
“The identifications of flu have come from the tropics, not from the usual places,” Monto said. “What we’ve seen globally with flu is mainly type B, which is the one we don’t see as the predominant strain.”
Monto has seen a few flu viruses pick up a couple months ago in the U.S., and says that they may “take off” once we get into the winter season.
It’s safe to say that as COVID precautions have been dropped, other viruses have come back in unexpected patterns. The U.S. has seen an unusual summer surge in cases of RSV in young children, particularly in the South.
“Clearly the viruses are there and waiting, and we’re not sure exactly what triggers the spread,” Monto said.
The best protection against the flu is to get the flu shot. Experts recommend getting your flu shot by the end of October.
With COVID booster shots also expected to be recommended by then, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said that individuals can receive both a flu shot and a COVID booster shot at the same time. However, if you would prefer not to get them at the same time, you can space them out by at least 14 days.
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