With increased interest in handwashing, disinfecting and social distancing, experts believe there is a chance the U.S. might experience a milder flu season this year.
And with the initial influenza data rolling in from the Southern Hemisphere, which is currently amidst its winter months, there is hope that this year’s flu season won’t catapult the country into further mayhem during the coronavirus pandemic.
“If you put this on top of a normal flu season, especially a bad flu season, it would really be a crisis,” said Dr. Rebecca Dutch, a virologist at the University of Kentucky who is helping coordinate the institution’s COVID-19 research.
Since 2010, the influenza has caused between 9 million and 45 million illnesses, between 140,000 and 810,000 hospitalizations and between 12,000 and 61,000 deaths annually, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
These burdens could overlap with the burdens of COVID-19 — with specific concerns of severe symptoms, overwhelmed hospitals and reduced workdays in an already struggling economy.
This year, countries like Chile and New Zealand have thus far reported a milder influenza season. Concerted efforts to get citizens vaccinated could have played a role in helping them reduce the spread of the flu, according to Dutch.
In addition to good hygiene habits, the CDC recommends getting a flu shot by September or October to help reduce the spread of the virus. Earlier this month, CDC Director Robert Redfield warned in a webinar that it was more imperative than ever this year to get a flu shot.
“I do think the fall and the winter of 2020 and 2021 are going to be probably one of the most difficult times that we’ve experienced in American public health,” Redfield said during the interview.
There might be a source for potential optimism under the skin: the influenza virus and COVID-19 might be subject to “viral interference.”
“You can have situations when one respiratory virus can take the niche that the other needs,” Dutch said.
There have been precedents. In 2009, the H1N1 virus spiked in April and May and then the nation saw less seasonal flu later in the year.
“H1N1 took that niche,” Dutch said. “[With COVID-19], I have my fingers crossed, but we don’t know.”
The pathogens use different receptors on cells, so it is possible to be infected with both COVID-19 and influenza, like in this CDC case study. An April study published in JAMA found that one in five patients diagnosed with COVID-19 were coinfected with another respiratory virus — most commonly rhinovirus and respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV.
Whatever the future holds, citizens should remain prepared and continue to follow public health guidance, Dutch said.