What to know about influenza and COVID-19 as flu season picks up
Can you get vaccinated for the flu and COVID-19 at the same time? Can you get influenza and COVID-19 simultaneously? Will this flu season be severe after last season was historically low? The CDC answered AccuWeather's questions.
Because so many people spent last fall and winter relentlessly washing hands and socially distancing, fewer people than normal got the flu. What does that mean as we head into this year's flu season and the holiday?
As devastating as 2020 was due to the coronavirus, there was an upside: the near-disappearance of seasonal flu. Because of all the safety precautions, including masking and physical distancing and other prevention measures put in place for COVID-19, the United States experienced historically low levels of flu cases and deaths.
There were fewer than 2,000 flu cases last influenza season, according to data reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which said that, by comparison, the 2019-2020 flu season saw an estimated 35 million cases. Flu season runs approximately from October through March, although activity can last as late as May.
“What that means is that there may be reduced immunity in the population against flu, this season," Dr. Michael Jhung of the CDC told AccuWeather. "It’s one reason why it’s especially important to get vaccinated this year and also why we might see flu come back with a vengeance.”
Jhung's comments echo what CDC director Dr. Rochelle Wolensky said a month ago when she warned that the U.S. is at risk for a severe flu season and urged Americans to get vaccinated against both COVID-19 and the flu.
Some experts are concerned that people are experiencing vaccine fatigue. The Weekly National Flu Vaccination Dashboard shows that "flu vaccination rates are 6 percentage points lower for all children this season as of the week ending November 6, 2021, compared with last season week ending November 7, 2020 (34.3% compared to 40.3%)." Influenza vaccination rates for pregnant persons are also down compared to 2020.
In an effort to inspire people to get both vaccines, Jhung said that it is safe and effective to get vaccines for COVID-19 and the flu at the same time. “It’s perfectly fine to get an influenza vaccine and a COVID vaccine whether it’s the first or second dose in your initial series or a booster dose of COVID [vaccine] at the same visit," Jhung, who is an associated director for science within the CDC's influenza division, said.
A map from the CDC showing that flu activity was largely 'minimal' across the U.S. as of Sept. 19, 2020, just before the beginning of that flu season, which turned out to be historically low with fewer than 2,000 flu cases reported nationwide, according to the CDC.
He added that there are some simple guidelines people should keep in mind: "Don't get both vaccines in the same exact location on your body and, if possible, put them on different limbs," he advised. "We hope knowing that will encourage people to get both vaccines and save time not having to schedule two separate appointments.”
It's a great time to get your flu vaccine. Jhung explained that there are plenty of available doses, and the CDC is reporting that the flu is slowly starting to pick up in some parts of the country, which is typical at this time of year during an average flu season. Jhung said it can be difficult to tell the difference between COVID-19 and influenza, so anyone experiencing any respiratory illness symptoms should see a health provider.
“It’s important to distinguish between influenza and COVID this season because there are treatments for influenza -- if they are given quickly -- are effective in reducing symptoms, duration of symptoms and severity of symptoms," he told AccuWeather.
After last year’s record-low flu numbers and because scientists develop the annual influenza vaccine based on the composition of the flu strains that circulated the previous year, there has been concern about the effectiveness of this year’s vaccine, but Jhung is confident that this year's vaccine is solid.
“In one sense, it is a little tricky to do that when the number of viruses is low, but we think the sampling was good. We think the vaccine composition is good, or as good as it could be in any year," he said.
The bottom line, Jhung said, is that people should get the flu vaccine to protect themselves and friends and family they may be seeing over the holidays. More vaccinations can help provide protection for those at an increased risk, including adults over 65, people with chronic health conditions such as asthma, heart disease or diabetes, and children, especially under five who are at risk of severe complications from the flu.
Flu viruses are more stable in cold air, and the lower humidity that occurs during the calendar's colder months allows the virus particles to remain in the air, according to Peter Palese, who was the lead author on a key flu study in 2007.
For the latest weather news, check back on AccuWeather.com. Watch the AccuWeather Network on DIRECTV, Frontier, Spectrum, fuboTV, Philo, and Verizon Fios. AccuWeather Now is now available on your preferred streaming platform.Report a Typo