MORGANTOWN—With winter just around the corner, area experts have some concerns of what last year’s mild influenza season might mean for the coming one.
“I don’t know which way it will be, but I’m worried,” said Dr, Kathryn Moffett, WVU Medicine pediatric infectious disease specialist.
Moffett said when the flu circulates each year, it helps the population to build up immunity. A population that is highly immune to influenza, or one that is considered to have gained herd immunity, has a natural indirect protection from the virus.
According to a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “flu activity was unusually low throughout the 2020-21 flu season both in the United States and globally, despite high levels of testing.” According to the report, these statistics are likely a result of COVID-19 mitigation measures such as wearing face masks, staying home, hand-washing, school closures, reduced travel, increased ventilation of indoor space and physical distancing.
Because of the lower than average number of influenza cases, the overall population may not have been able to build up the same strength of immunity as in previous years. This may leave more people susceptible.
Dr, Diane Gross, Monongalia County Health Department’s regional epidemiologist, said if precautions against COVID-19 are taken through the winter, flu cases will likely remain low again; however, it is impossible to predict at this time.
“We’re in uncharted territory pretty much right now,” she said.
Gross said one of the biggest concerns West Virginia healthcare workers have regarding flu season is the lack of bed spaces in hospitals due to COVID-19. West Virginia is currently experiencing a nearly record-breaking number of hospitalizations.
“We cannot handle more patients,” Gross said. “We don’t want a second epidemic of respiratory illness with people needing hospitalization because we cannot handle that.”
COVID-19 vs. Influenza
Telling the difference between influenza and COVID-19 can be challenging. Both viruses often come with fever, cough, body aches, congestion and headaches.
“The two overlap very greatly,” Moffett said.
One of the main differences Moffett said to pay attention to is loss of taste or smell as this is a unique symptom to COVID-19. Similarly to COVID-19, some cases of flu may be asymptomatic.
One way to definitively say whether someone is experiencing COVID-19 or the flu is to get tested. Moffett said testing exists for both viruses in the form of a nasal swab and depending on the lab, may be available as a singular test for both.
Gross said it is possible to have both illnesses at the same time; however, she said it is still too early to definitively say how these two viruses impact one another.
Getting vaccinated against the flu is the best way to prevent further spread. Gross said there are no dangers that come with getting vaccinated against COVID-19 and influenza at the same time.
“Most important thing is to get a vaccine,” she said. “You can get a vaccine at the same time you’re getting your COVID vaccine if you haven’t gotten that yet. They’re both recommended and you can give them at the same time.”
The youth and elderly populations are especially encouraged to get vaccinated against Influenza as they are often at the highest risk. It is also highly recommended for those who are immunocompromised.
While those 12 and older are eligible for COVID-19 vaccination, the flu vaccine is recommended for anyone six months and older.
Gross said the best time to get the flu vaccine is by the end of October. Similarly to the COVID-19 vaccination, some medical exemptions may exist and it is important for those with underlying conditions to speak with their doctors about any concerns.
Those who currently have COVID-19 are discouraged from getting flu vaccine until they fully recover to prevent spreading the virus. For additional information on influenza, including where to get vaccinated, visit www.monchd.org/influenza. Information on COVID-19 and vaccinations can be found at dhhr.wv.gov/COVID-19/Pages/Vaccine.