SHELLEY — At a recent drive-thru flu shot clinic, Jane Strong pulled in as she was heading to buy groceries.
Usually, she’ll get a flu shot at work, when a flu clinic is set up at Idaho National Laboratory. But she’s been working from home lately.
“With COVID and everything, I just am taking all the precautions,” she said. Strong has grandkids and other family she said she wants to see. “I’ll do everything I can to be safe and keep others safe. The new normal, I guess. That’s kind of a cliché, but that’s what it is now.”
As experts anticipate that coronavirus will overlap with flu season, they’re urging people to get vaccinated for the flu to avoid straining health care resources. The dual virus season could stress demand on testing because the viruses often have similar respiratory symptoms, experts say, and hospitals could be swamped.
“We have the potential to either do very well, or very poorly this season,” said Dr. Kenneth Krell, who directs the intensive care unit at Eastern Idaho Regional Medical Center.
He said plainly: “If we keep up with masking and distancing and flu vaccines, we do have the potential of a better flu season than average. On the other hand, if we have a really bad flu season, it would likely be a nightmare because we’re gonna see (a combination) of COVID and influenza.”
When a large number of people get vaccinated, vaccines can reduce infection rates through “herd immunity.” That stems from early immune responses, which can also make infections less severe.
“Prevention is the most important part of health care,” said Dr. Martha Buitrago, a local infectious disease expert who works at Portneuf Medical Center in Pocatello. “Every year, we have a tool to prevent infection. That tool is the flu vaccine. It might not be perfect, but it’s something that everybody can do, and everybody has access to.”
The flu is much less deadly than COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. In six and a half months, COVID-19 has killed more Idahoans (at least 460) than the flu did in the past 11 years (430), according to the Post Register’s tally of annual reports by the state health department.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that influenza has resulted in between 12,000 and 61,000 deaths annually in the U.S. since 2010. The CDC reports 204,598 deaths from COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic this year.
Eastern Idaho Public Health reported around 5 p.m. Tuesday that two more eastern Idaho residents had died from COVID-19, pushing the region’s death toll to 25 since March. One was a male in his 70s from Bonneville County; the other was a male in his 70s from Madison County.
Idaho health officials said earlier this month that tests that can screen for both flu and the coronavirus will be available this fall.
The upcoming flu season’s severity hinges on people’s adherence to public health guidelines, and their willingness to get vaccinated, Krell said.
But amid a resurgence of coronavirus cases in eastern Idaho and statewide, doctors don’t see promising signs.
If “we all follow all the guidelines, not necessarily just one, then we’ll have a better season,” Buitrago said. “But as it is right now, we’re not following what’s available and we’re not serving our neighbor by trying to be safe.”
The flu has yet to become widespread in Idaho or the country, according to CDC’s influenza map.
Post Register reporter Brennen Kauffman contributed.