It’s that time of the year again.
When a common respiratory virus begins to rear its ugly head again, causing 12,000 to 52,000 deaths per year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Influenza isn’t widespread yet, but its peak season is fast approaching while Idaho still reels from a COVID-19 surge without a clear end in sight. And after a virtually non-existent flu season last year, the U.S. is primed to experience something more intense, said J. Todd Bagwell, medical director for infectious disease at Eastern Idaho Regional Medical Center.
All that makes it especially important to get your flu shot now, three doctors told the Post Register last week.
‘Prevention is key’
It’s better to not get COVID-19 than it is to get COVID-19, said Dr. Martha Buitrago.
In addition to the immediate symptoms that could land someone in the hospital, many COVID-19 survivors report debilitating, long-lasting symptoms like brain fog and fatigue that have made it more difficult to live their day-to-day lives.
“What doctors are saying, generally, is that if we learned anything from our COVID epidemic, it’s that prevention of disease is the best intervention for any disease,” Buitrago said.
Flu vaccines do just that — providing a simple tool to reduce your chances of contracting a given virus.
The CDC recommends being vaccinated by the end of October.
Last year, prevention measures helped stave off a normal flu season, Bagwell said. That came in the form of a record number of flu vaccines being distributed across the U.S., as well as through behavioral changes people adopted during the pandemic such as social distancing and wearing masks.
But this year, he isn’t expecting the same good luck to fare out.
“I think everybody’s thinking it’s going to be worse than last year just because last year was so incredibly low,” Bagwell said. “Literally, we went most of the flu season last year without seeing one or two cases.”
Last September, Dr. Kenneth Krell, intensive care doctor at EIRMC, previewed the two possible flu seasons that could lie ahead.
“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,” Krell said in an interview with the Post Register at the time.
Fears about a dual virus season, with both influenza and COVID-19 circulating, didn’t pan out last year. Flu spread at low levels, while COVID-19 patients filled intensive care units in Idaho hospitals last November and December.
“We greatly overestimated how much influenza we were going to be seeing, but you know, to expect perfection in the medical profession and in public health when we’ve never been through this before is an absurd idea. We’re learning as we go,” Krell said. “We’re not exactly winging it, but we’re having to learn as we go for what sort of mitigation strategies matter, what kind of infection rates we’re going to see based on those mitigations. I believe it’s a tribute to those mitigation measures that we did not have a bad influenza season.”
What about this year?
It’s unclear how this season will play out, the three doctors said. There are reasons to believe it will be more active than last year, and there are reasons to believe it won’t collide with a COVID-19 surge.
The COVID-19 social precautions that people adhered to last year — namely masking and social distancing — aren’t as widely followed this year, Krell notes. That sets up an active flu season.
“We are likely to be more vulnerable as a population, especially in a place like Idaho where masking and social distancing are essentially non-existent,” he said in an interview this month. “That we could see a huge increase in influenza cases that could compound our already stressed health care system.”
But even then, there are factors that reduce the likelihood of a damaging dual flu-COVID season. First, as Krell and Bagwell pointed out, the southern hemisphere’s flu season, which occurs during the northern hemisphere’s summertime, was calm. Krell said “that may be because they had better masking and social distancing than we did in this country.”
But second, the nation is experiencing a decline in COVID-19 cases. It’s not yet clear if COVID-19 cases or hospitalizations have reached their maximum record high for the foreseeable future, but one state model expects both metrics to peak next month.
State officials last week wouldn’t call a dip in hospitalizations a promising sign that metrics would improve. But some seemed more optimistic.
Krell said Idaho “may well see a decrease in COVID cases” like other states have.
“My feeling is we are on the backside of the surge this summer,” Bagwell said.