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Experts fear twindemic: Flu season might be more severe this year

With the flu season approaching, some medical experts are worried about a “twindemic” of COVID-19 and a rough flu season.

While it’s difficult to predict the severity of the 2021 to 2022 flu season, it’s almost guaranteed to be worse than last year’s, according to Public Relations Director John Atkinson of East Alabama Medical Center. Flu cases were limited last year, largely due to mask mandates, social distancing, and improved hand hygiene.

“These mitigation strategies worked well for the flu as it’s not as contagious as COVID-19,” he said. “The concern this year is that most mandates have ended, and people have generally become less compliant which could lead to more flu cases. And even though COVID cases are on the decline right now, the holiday season is not far away, and that’s when we saw our largest peak prior to the peak we just had as a result of the Delta variant. We don’t need to take either of the viruses lightly.”

Two analyses led by scientists at the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health revealed that the upcoming flu season may be more severe than average, especially for young children, due to weakened population-level immunity from last year’s comparatively mild flu season, according to nonprofit health care provider and insurer UPMC.

“In a worst-case situation with a highly transmissible flu strain dominating and low influenza vaccination uptake, our predictive models indicate the potential for up to nearly half a million more flu hospitalizations this winter, compared to a normal flu season,” said Mark Roberts, M.D., M.P.P., the senior author for both studies and the director of the Public Health Dynamics Laboratory at Pitt Public Health. “Vaccinating as many people against flu as possible will be key to avoiding this scenario.”

Atkinson said it’s fine for people to be vaccinated for COVID-19 and the flu on the same day. The East Alabama Health system is offering COVID-19 vaccines at Spencer Cancer Center in Opelika (Call 334-528-8434 to schedule.) and Auburn Medical Pavilion in Auburn (Call 334-364-3050 to schedule.). He said these locations can provide the flu vaccine, as well. Walk-ins are welcomed.

“The COVID-19 vaccines are free for everyone,” he said. “Most insurance plans cover the cost of a flu vaccine.”

Pharmacist Kirsten Hood of Hood’s Pharmacy & Gifts in Valley said her pharmacy is hoping to have flu shots available around the beginning of October. She said they would be covered by most insurances, making them practically free.

“We’re still doing [COVID-19 vaccines] by appointment, so [people] are welcome to call at any time, and we can get them scheduled,” she said.

Hood said there’s evidence that the flu shot not only protects against influenza, but also against some of the more severe effects of COVID-19. The CDC has said it’s safe to get the flu and COVID-19 vaccine at the same time.

A study from the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, published on Aug. 3 in the peer-reviewed scientific journal PLoS One, indicates that the flu shot can protect against stroke, sepsis, and deep vein thrombosis in patients with COVID-19, according to a news release from Inventum, a medical news site run by the University of Miami Health System. It analyzed 74,754 patients from around the world.

Patients in the study who were vaccinated against the flu were also significantly less likely to go to the emergency department or intensive care unit. Those who hadn’t had the flu shot and got COVID-19 were up to 20% more likely to have been admitted to an ICU. Additionally, they were up to 58% more likely to visit the emergency room, up to 45% more likely to develop sepsis, up to 58% more likely to have a stroke, and up to 40% more likely to have deep vein thrombosis.

However, the risk of death was not reduced.