The coronavirus pandemic shut down the entire United States in the spring of 2020, halting the production of goods, sending millions of people to work from home and making one virus seemingly disappear — the flu.
However, as COVID-19 restrictions were lifted and people returned to offices and classrooms, the number of flu cases came back, and this year’s cases could skyrocket to pre-pandemic levels.
“Every flu season is unique,” Alicia Budd, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Influenza Division epidemiologist told AccuWeather in an interview. “It certainly keeps us on our toes.”
Budd explained that the Influenza Division watches a variety of things throughout the year to get a gauge on what to expect for the upcoming flu season. One way to try and predict what will happen in the United States is to look at other places in the world, in particular, the Southern Hemisphere, which is starting to wrap up its flu season.
Australia is wrapping up one of its worst flu seasons in five years. Australia health officials noted flu cases spiked nearly two to three months earlier than normal, a recent AARP report noted.
“Flu viruses don’t really respect borders,” Budd said, explaining that sometimes a worse-than-average flu season for the Southern Hemisphere could spell trouble for the Northern Hemisphere. Budd warned, though, that this isn’t always the case — some years influenza activity in the Southern Hemisphere is not always a good predictor of what’s to come for the United States.
In the United States, flu seasons typically cross calendar years, running from October of one year to May of the next. During the 2020-21 flu season, which was the first flu season after COVID-19 emerged, there was “very little flu activity within the U.S.,” Budd noted.
Looking back at the 2021-22 flu season, Budd said, flu activity started to re-emerge. Budd explained that the relaxation of COVID-19 restrictions across the United States is one reason flu case numbers started to rise again.
“That is probably, at least in part, what has accounted for the change between the 2020-21 and 2021-22 season,” Budd said. “Even in that amount of time, we saw schools getting back in session in person and more international travel happening.”
As the U.S. population heads into the colder months, more and more people will spend time indoors, and with additional COVID-19 restrictions being lifted since the end of the last flu season, Budd expects the flu virus will have an easier time circulating this year.
“I certainly would expect to see something more along the lines of what is a normal flu season this fall,” Budd said. “But again, normal has a wide range, so exactly what it’s going to look like, it’s not possible to tell at this point.”
Even though the specifics of the upcoming flu season can’t be spelled out yet, doctors recommend getting the flu vaccine, as that is the best way to be prepared for the flu season.
“It’s critically important to get the flu shot,” chief medical officer at WebMD, Dr. John Whyte, told AccuWeather in an interview. “Influenza can be deadly, particularly for senior citizens.”
But making sure everyone is vaccinated is an important step in preventing serious illness, hospital admission and death. The CDC target goal for adults immunized for the flu shot annually is 70%, but that goal of 70% is for all adults, including racial and ethnic groups.
By looking at 2021 vaccination rates provided by the Kaiser Family Foundation and the CDC, it is apparent that there are notable gaps in vaccination coverage for certain racial and ethnic groups.
Vaccination rates for Black individuals were the lowest among the four groups specified in the KFF data, with only 42.7% of individuals being vaccinated. Hispanic individuals were the second lowest group, with a total of 44.9% of individuals vaccinated.
Making sure flu vaccines are available to people of these racial and ethnic groups is one of the first ways to reduce serious illness, hospitalization admission and death, Budd explained.
“[The] CDC has a new grant program called ‘Partnering for Vaccine Equity,’ and that’s funding community partners at the national, state and local level to try and increase vaccine confidence and access to knowledge among racial and ethnic minority groups,” Budd said. “The ultimate goal, of course, [is] to increase the uptake so that they can have greater degrees of protection within their community.”
Although the United States is in a much better place than it was at the beginning of the pandemic, COVID-19 will still be a major respiratory virus that will circulate, along with the flu, this fall and winter as people head back indoors. Whyte recommends people stay on top of their COVID-19 boosters as the virus continues to mutate.
“We do know that only a small percentage of Americans are keeping up with boosters. Given immunity wanes over several months and the virus continues to mutate, we likely will [have] an uptick in COVID cases in the fall,” Whyte said. “COVID is going to be around for a while, and we need to protect ourselves and our families.”