SALT LAKE CITY, (ABC4) – As the COVID-19 pandemic ravaged the globe last year, public health officials said cases of the flu dropped to historically low levels last year. But now public health officials are concerned that this upcoming flu season could potentially be much worse.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky attributes the small number of influenza cases to people wearing masks and social distancing last year. But with many prevention measures no longer in place, public health officials share some concern for the possibility of a higher volume of cases.
“CDC’s flu experts are concerned that reduced population-level immunity to the seasonal flu could place us at risk for a potentially severe flu season this year,” Dr. Walenksy said.
During the 2019 to 2020 flu season, CDC data shows about 35 million people had the flu.
Last year, data shows about 2,000 Americans caught the flu.
Dr. Neal Davis, M.D., a pediatrician and medical director for pediatric community-based care at Intermountain Healthcare, said he didn’t have one case – which surprised him – when compared to past years.
“When we hit peak flu season, we were seeing kids every day that are sick, and sometimes quite sick,” he said.
Dr. Davis said healthcare professionals typically start to see influenza cases in November and December. By January and February, he said cases hit a peak.
With the potential for an increase in flu infections this winter, Dr. Walensky also said the symptoms of the flu can be similar to those with COVID-19.
Dr. Jeanmarie Mayer, the University of Utah Health’s chief medical epidemiologist, said if a person feels sick and doesn’t know what kind of respiratory virus they have, to talk to their doctor before getting tested.
“The biggest thing to still test for is really COVID,” she said. “What’s trending in the community right now? RSV, some rhinovirus. And as we start to see more cases of influenza, that’s when people should be asking their provider: could this be flu as well?”
Because some respiratory illnesses are similar, the CDC reports the difference between them cannot be made based on symptoms alone, and it recommends being tested.
The agency also reports people can be infected with both flu and COVID-19 at the same time and have symptoms of both influenza and COVID-19.
While the country could see a greater number of flu cases, national and local public health officials encourage everyone – who’s eligible – to get their flu shot.
“From six months and above, everyone really should be getting a flu vaccine. And the more people that get the flu vaccine, the less that we’ll have transmission in the population,” Dr. Mayer said. “Even on an individual level, the flu vaccine isn’t 100%, but it really reduces the potential for an individual to get the flu or get as sick with the flu. But as more people get the flu shot, it helps us all as a community.”
For those who haven’t received their flu shot or COVID-19 vaccine, the CDC reports it’s safe to get them both at the same time.
Dr. Walensky said every year in the United States, influenza can claim between 12,000 and 52,000 lives, and results in 140,000 to 710,000 hospitalizations.
She said it’s another toll the country needs to work hard to avoid.