Last year, California health experts warned about a possible “twindemic,” a nightmarish scenario where both the influenza and COVID-19 pose a threat to the public. Luckily, 2020 presented some of the lowest influenza rates in decades because of heightened health awareness due to COVID. With the pandemic ongoing and the flu season fast approaching, citizens must be cautious and take extra safety measures in order to avoid a possible twindemic.
Health experts attribute the low influenza rates in 2020 to the mix of social distancing, masking and hand-washing that COVID warranted. Additionally, remote working reduced the amount of spaces where people could infect coworkers. With many people returning to the office or school, it is vital to reduce spread through all possible means. Compared to the 2019-2020 flu season, which had an estimated 39 to 56 million cases, the flu has been virtually nonexistent since the COVID pandemic. In fact, scientists think that at least two flu strains have gone extinct during this period. With this in mind, people need to recognize that the precautionary measures they took within the thick of the pandemic should not be ignored just because society has a sliver of normalcy.
Influenza may have seemed like a trivial issue in the past, but things are different in the age of COVID. The main concern regarding a twindemic is hospital capacity. Over the last year, there have been extensive reports regarding little to no intensive care unit beds due to overcrowding from COVID-infected patients. This overcrowding has forced hospitals to make tough decisions about which patients deserve treatment over others, and this ultimately leads to a lot of untreated health issues. In the instance of a possible flu outbreak, the situation becomes exponentially worse.
In addition to the flu, another seasonal disease, respiratory syncytial virus, poses a new threat to public health. Posing a larger threat to babies and adults, RSV is a respiratory disease that tends to emerge in the winter, but testing indicates an unprecedented uptick over the summer. RSV symptoms are similar to the common cold but can materialize in pneumonia for some people. Paired with the fact that there is no vaccine, experts worry that RSV could become a potential issue over the winter as well. Since there is no vaccine for RSV, and consequently no way to fully protect yourself and others, this is yet another factor that could strain hospitals, and why it is important for Californians to get their annual flu shots. However, following through with social distancing and mask-wearing can significantly reduce the chances of RSV becoming a serious threat over this winter season.
Although low rates of influenza are promising, there are concerns regarding lower immunity for the upcoming 2021-2022 flu season. To circumvent this, health experts are urging people to get their yearly flu shots. Last year, only 47% of adults in California vaccinated themselves against the flu, which is below the national average. Additionally, continuing COVID precautions would attack both diseases at once — lowering the overcrowding of healthcare facilities. UCR is hosting free flu shot clinics that are available to UCR faculty and staff. As the flu season approaches, make sure to protect yourself and others by getting vaccinated!