The prospect of flu cases this season swamping the United States as well as COVID-19 is grim; co-infection with both respiratory viruses could be deadly. Many states have been experiencing a new wave of the coronavirus cases caused by the delta variant and the additional burden of caring for people with flu could be disastrous. Plus, people with flu symptoms will need testing to rule out COVID-19, and testing systems could become strained again.
At Cedars-Sinai, the microbiology laboratory is preparing more effective, efficient tests for a combination of viruses that might present this season. “Influenza, COVID-19 and other viruses that cause colds and infections—their symptoms can be similar but their therapies can differ,” said Margie Morgan, M.D., director of clinical microbiology at Cedars-Sinai. Dr. “We’ll be ready to help clinicians determine patients’ diagnoses so they can treat them effectively.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that during the 2019-2020 flu season, the most recent reported season, 38,000,000 people were infected with influenza, 400,000 people were hospitalized and 22,000 died.
The flu virus spreads when people breathe in respiratory particles from the sneezes and coughs of someone who is infected, or when they touch surfaces which are contaminated with the virus. The best advice to avoid the flu is to not be in crowded areas with poor ventilation, not go to work places or schools where others are infected, and to wash your hands regularly – the same measures introduced to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
So what does this mean for the coming months?
Businesses, schools and other highly-trafficked public places have reopened since the last flu season, which means people have far more social contact. Hospitals and health systems are encouraging people to get the flu vaccine, in addition to the COVID-19 vaccine, and follow pandemic precautions recommended by the CDC: Maintain social distancing, wear masks and wash hands frequently.
Pandemic fatigue could mean that people are tiring of these measures, or taking them less seriously than when COVID-19 first emerged. But now is not the time to let up.
Flu vaccine manufacturers such GlaxoSmithKline and AstraZeneca are ramping up production for the season. The CDC is expected to produce up to 198 million doses - an increase of 20 million compared to last year.