Health experts are warning the nation to brace for what could be an exceptionally severe flu season this fall and winter as more people who haven’t built up immunity in recent years mix and mingle. There are two main reasons why more people may be susceptible to the flu this year.
The first is that with coronavirus restrictions like wearing masks almost forgotten, people are more likely to come into contact with the flu virus this year than in the past two years.
The second reason is that fewer people are likely to be immune to the flu virus this year, because fewer people have gotten the flu in the past two years — because the pandemic locked up people and people were more concerned about getting COVID-19.
Richard Webby, a virologist with the infectious diseases division at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, said the past two flu seasons just haven’t seen the same levels of flu exposure.
“As a population, our immunity to the flu has dropped a bit,” Webby said. “If the virus comes back, it will probably have a little more room to spread, a little more room to potentially cause disease.”
In a normal year, exposure to the flu virus generates some community immunity, as about 10 to 30 percent of people are exposed to the flu in a normal season.
But in 2020 and 2021, fewer people were exposed, resulting in a decline in natural immunity.
For example, the number of deaths from pediatric flu normally exceeded 100 each year before the pandemic.
But over the past two flu seasons, pediatric flu deaths have been reported to fall below 40, with only one pediatric death confirmed in 2020.
This lowered population immunity means people are at a higher risk of contracting the flu this year, Webby said.
Amesh Adalja, senior scientist at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security at the Bloomberg School of Public Health, said the flu season had essentially “not existed” for the past two years, adding that this trend would always end once social distancing was achieved. less practiced.
According to Adalja, the evidence that the flu is returning is a sign that people are returning to “a semblance of their pre-COVID life”.
The Southern Hemisphere gives the United States a taste of what’s to come.
It’s been winter in the southern hemisphere and those countries have been through a tough flu season. Australia, for example, experienced its worst flu season in five years, with cases peaking earlier than usual in the country.
In both 2020 and 2021, the Australian Department of Health and Aged Care noted a lower number of reported flu cases and severity, with only 37 laboratory-confirmed flu-related deaths reported in 2020 and zero reported in 2021. Flu hospitalizations and deaths hit an all-time low in Australia last year. year.
There were nearly 600 cases of lab-confirmed flu in Australia in 2021. During this year’s flu season, the country reported more than 217,000 cases, although this is still lower than in 2019, when Australia reported more than 300,000 cases, the highest number of cases recorded for the country.
Webby noted that the number of flu deaths and hospitalizations in Australia this year was still relatively low, despite the significant flu season the country saw. Deaths and hospitalizations are largely caused by infections in the elderly, and Australia still took precautions when it came to this demographic.
If such precautions are also taken in the U.S., higher hospital admissions and deaths from the flu could be avoided in the same way, Webby said.
Experts speaking to The Hill agreed that what was seen in the southern hemisphere resembled a return to normal flu season, one that has not been “suppressed” by the COVID-19 pandemic. Both Webby and Adalja doubted there would be a “twin epidemic” of both flu and coronavirus this year.
“I don’t think these two viruses can become gangbusters at the same time,” Webby said.
With the recent approval of the bivalent COVID-19 booster dose, the White House has begun recommending people get both their booster and flu shots at the same time, in hopes of preventing an increase in both viruses.
For the 2022-2023 flu season, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have stated that September and October are good times to get vaccinated.
Since many COVID-19 aware people are likely to get their booster shots sooner rather than later, some have wondered whether September, when COVID-19 boosters became available, is too early to be vaccinated against the flu and whether it would be better. are every two shots at different times.
Adalja said it was better to time your flu shot to be effective throughout the flu season.
“If you get it too early, there is clear evidence that it will decrease towards the end of the season,” he said. “Traditionally, it peaked around February. So if you get a flu shot now in early September, you can’t expect it to be as effective at the end of the flu season. So I’ve always advised people to get their flu vaccine sometime in late October.”
Adalja went on to say that he did not believe that the White House’s recommendation to get flu shots at the same time as COVID-19 injections was scientifically substantiated.
“What they’re trying to do is increase the uptake of both and come up with a kind of gimmick for people to get, you know, a two-for-one when it can really interfere with the flu vaccine’s efficacy if it’s given too early,” said Adalja.