Health officials: Flu could rise this season as COVID-19 restrictions wane

As flu season approaches, health officials say this year’s cases could surge to pre-pandemic levels. File Photo by Mojpe/pixabay

In the spring of 2020, the coronavirus pandemic paralyzed the entire United States, stopped the production of goods, sent millions of people to work from home and made one virus seem to disappear – the flu.

However, as COVID-19 restrictions were lifted and people returned to offices and classrooms, the number of flu cases returned, and this year’s cases could rise to pre-pandemic levels.

“Each flu season is unique,” said Alicia Budd, epidemiologist for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Influenza Division, in an interview with AccuWeather. “It definitely keeps us on our toes.”

Budd explained that the Influenza Division monitors a variety of things throughout the year to get a sense of what to expect for the upcoming flu season. One way to predict what will happen in the United States is to look at other places around the world, particularly the southern hemisphere, which is beginning to end its flu season.

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Australia ends one of the worst flu seasons in five years. Australian health officials found flu cases surging almost two to three months earlier than normal, according to a recent AARP report.

“Flu viruses don’t really respect borders,” Budd said, explaining that sometimes a better-than-average flu season for the southern hemisphere could mean problems for the northern hemisphere. But Budd cautioned that this isn’t always the case — a few years’ influenza activity in the Southern Hemisphere isn’t always a good indicator of what’s to come for the United States.

In the United States, flu seasons typically span calendar years, lasting from October of one year to May of the next. During the 2020-21 flu season, which was the first flu season after the emergence of COVID-19, there was “very little flu activity in the US,” Budd noted.

Looking back on the 2021-22 flu season, Budd said, Flu activity began to resurface. Budd explained that the easing of COVID-19 restrictions in the United States is one reason the number of flu cases started to rise again.

“That’s probably at least partly the reason for the switch between the 2020-21 and 2021-22 seasons,” Budd said. “Even in that time, we’ve seen schools returning to meetings in person and more international travel taking place.”

As the U.S. population heads for the colder months, more people will be spending time indoors, and with additional COVID-19 restrictions lifted since last flu season ended, Budd expects the flu virus to have an easier time this year to spread .

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“I would definitely expect to see something more like a regular flu season this fall,” Budd said. “But again, Normal has a lot of range, so it’s not possible to say exactly what it’s going to look like at this point.”

While the details of the upcoming flu season are yet to be finalized, doctors recommend getting the flu shot as it’s the best way to prepare for flu season.

“It’s crucial to get vaccinated against the flu,” said Dr. John Whyte, WebMD’s chief medical officer, in an interview with AccuWeather. “Influenza can be deadly, especially for the elderly.”

But making sure everyone is vaccinated is an important step in preventing serious illness, hospitalizations and deaths. The CDC goal for adults to be vaccinated against the flu shot annually is 70%, but this 70% goal applies to all adults, including racial and ethnic groups.

A look at 2021 immunization coverage provided by the Kaiser Family Foundation and the CDC shows that there are significant gaps in immunization coverage among certain racial and ethnic groups.

Black vaccination rates were the lowest among the four groups reported in the KFF data, with only 42.7% of individuals vaccinated. Hispanics were the second lowest group, totaling 44.9% of those vaccinated.

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Ensuring flu vaccines are available to people of these racial and ethnic groups is one of the first ways to reduce serious illness, hospitalizations and deaths, Budd explained.

“[The] CDC has a new grant program called ‘Partnering for Vaccine Equity,’ which funds community partners at the national, state and local levels to try to increase confidence in vaccines and access to knowledge among racial and ethnic minority groups,” Budd said. “The ultimate goal, of course [is] to increase acceptance so that they can enjoy a higher level of protection in their community.

Though the United States is faring much better than when the pandemic began, COVID-19 will still be a major respiratory virus that will circulate alongside the flu this fall and winter as people go indoors. Whyte is advising people to keep an eye on their COVID-19 boosters as the virus continues to mutate.

“We know that only a small percentage of Americans keep up with boosters. Given that immunity wanes over several months and the virus continues to mutate, we likely will [have] a spike in COVID cases in the fall,” Whyte said. “COVID will be around for a while and we need to protect ourselves and our families.”

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