Uma-Malhotra-MD-smilingBefore COVID-19, having the sniffles or a mild headache was rarely cause for concern. Now, it’s common practice to stay home at the first sign of a cold. This is one of the reasons that there was very low flu activity during last year's flu season. But will that trend continue this year?

“We saw very little influenza activity last year, in part because of the stringent emphasis on social distancing, masking and quarantining if you were sick,” says Uma Malhotra, MD, infectious disease physician at Virginia Mason and BRI researcher. “The stark decline in flu activity is evidence of how these behaviors can really help stop the spread of viruses.”

We recently caught up with Dr. Malhotra to find out what to expect this flu season, how to keep ourselves and our communities healthy, and how the COVID-19 pandemic is impacting predictions for this year's flu season.

What exactly is a “bad” flu season?

The pandemic has made people more familiar with how viruses spread and cause illness. We know all too well that some virus strains may be more contagious and the same strain might impact different people in different ways. So, what does a “bad” flu season actually mean?

“A bad flu season could be a year with many cases of the flu, a strain of the flu that causes more severe illness or a combination of both,” Dr. Malhotra says.

Why might this year’s flu season be worse than usual?

As the pandemic settles, social restrictions are being eased and folks are letting go of their masks. This poses a risk for transmission of other respiratory viruses, such as influenza. One possible scenario is that since there wasn’t much influenza activity last year, people’s immune systems won’t be as primed and ready to fight off the flu when they come into contact with the virus again. When the flu circulates regularly and you get your annual flu shot, your body builds up immune cells to fight the flu. But if the body doesn’t see the flu, immune cells that are generated to fight it off can fade over time.

“We might see more severe illness in the community because there's lower immunity in the population, especially among those who are unvaccinated against the flu,” Dr. Malhotra says.

How will flu season impact the ongoing fight against COVID-19?

Quote-by-Dr.-MalhotraFor the past year and a half, we’ve seen high rates of COVID-19 pushing hospitals to capacity and beyond. A bad flu year can also fill up hospital beds and put a strain on the healthcare system.

“There have been many years in the past when flu season is very severe and it causes a great burden on hospitals,” Dr. Malhotra says. “Our hospitals have been overburdened with COVID-19 cases and we want to do everything we can to keep flu cases from adding to that stress or having simultaneous peaks in COVID-19 cases and flu cases — that would be very problematic.”

What can we do to avoid simultaneous peaks in cases of COVID-19 and the flu?

“The first and easiest step is to get vaccinated for COVID-19 and influenza,” Dr. Malhotra says. “You can receive both shots at the same time if you haven’t already had your COVID-19 shot or it is time for your booster.”

In addition to getting vaccinated, the precautions we’ve been taking throughout the pandemic can help prevent the spread of illness, including:

  • Frequent handwashing
  • Masking indoors and in crowded spaces
  • Maintaining social distance
  • Staying home if you’re sick
  • Contacting your doctor and asking about getting tested if you develop symptoms

“It is relatively early in the flu season and it’s also possible that this year's flu season will be mild,” Dr. Malhotra says. “Taking these precautions can help prevent the spread of illness and keep our communities healthy.”

Learn more about research and prevention at BRI: Get an insider’s look at vaccine research for people with autoimmune disease and Down syndrome and find answers to key questions about the current state of COVID-19. 

News & Views

November 10, 2021

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