By James D. Grant
Typically, influenza cases rise in the fall, peak in the winter and decrease in the spring.
Last year was an anomaly as the U.S. experienced fewer flu cases than any year recorded. That’s mainly because people wore masks, maintained social distance, avoided mass transportation and stayed home to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
A year later, more than 50 percent of the U.S. population completed COVID-19 vaccination, making masks and social distancing less common. Families and friends gather once more, students return to in-person instruction and opportunities for influenza exposure return to pre- COVID levels.
The 2021-2022 flu season
Some experts are concerned that last year’s barely existent flu season will cause natural immunity to weaken, making people more susceptible to the flu this year. The theory holds that repeated exposure to various flu strains in previous years may help the body’s immune system respond when exposed to the flu virus. So, the lack of influenza exposure last year might result in diminished immune response this year. This theory doesn’t have much specific research behind it.
The medical community doesn’t know enough yet to make a prediction for this year. Since influenza transmission was low last year and human interactions drastically changed over the last 18 months, the typical information used to forecast a flu season might not be as relevant.
Preparing for flu season
Regardless of the flu forecast, public health experts hope that come fall, people will practice the safety measures learned during the COVID pandemic, which could mitigate influenza transmission again this season.
COVID-19 and influenza are both viruses that spread through respiratory droplets. The strategies people employ to minimize the spread of the influenza virus are similar to the practices used to control the spread of COVID-19.
- Get a flu shot. An annual influenza vaccine offers protection against four common flu viruses. Called a quadrivalent vaccine, it protects against influenza A (H1N1) virus, influenza A (H3N2) virus and two influenza B viruses. The flu vaccine not only makes the recipient more resistant to infection, it makes the recipient less likely to pass the virus on to others. Individuals should talk with their doctor about which flu vaccine is best.
- Don’t touch the face. The virus lives in respiratory droplets, including eye and nasal secretions and saliva. Viruses often spread when people touch their eyes, nose or mouth, then touch something or someone else.
- Maintain hand hygiene. As we learned with COVID-19, frequently and thoroughly washing hands with soap and water removes or greatly reduces the likelihood of transmitting the virus. At minimum, hands should be washed before preparing or eating food, after using the bathroom and after touching surfaces that others touched (like doorknobs and light switches in public places).
- Stay home if feeling sick. People who feel unwell or who have symptoms of influenza such as fever, body aches, sore throat or coughs should stay away from others to avoid transmission.
It’s difficult to predict what this flu season will be like, but preparation remains the same as previous years.
Take proper precautions, be alert and consult a physician or health professional if symptoms are concerning.
About the author: James D. Grant is chief medical officer at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan.