Flu season could spell double trouble amid coronavirus pandemic

With flu season coming, doctors and public health officials worry that an outbreak of influenza in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic could wipe out our health care system. They warn of a scenario in which both illnesses are circulating at the same time and even more people need medical care.

“It could be tricky,” says John Lynch, ’02, ’07, ’11, a UW Medicine physician at Harborview. “We don’t know a lot of times if people have flu or COVID-19.” The two infectious diseases present similar symptoms, including cough, aches, fever and fatigue. But COVID-19 requires a higher level of care because it is more virulent and harmful. “It is going to create a level of complexity that we haven’t faced before,” he adds.

According to the World Health Organization, the latest data suggest that 80% of COVID-19 infections are mild, 15% are severe and require oxygen, and 5% are critical and require ventilators. The number of severe and critical infections is significantly higher than what is typical for the flu.

“But we can’t discount the flu or forget that flu is actually very dangerous,” says Lynch. “Flu affects every age group, and it can change from year to year, sometimes causing more harm to senior citizens, while in other years, more profoundly affecting pregnant women and young adults. If both viruses are circulating at the same time and flu is at its normal level, it will overload hospitals and clinics,” says Lynch. In 2019-2020, the Centers for Disease Control reported that an estimated 39 million people suffered from the flu; 18 million of them sought medical treatment.

Still, there may be some good news. Because of COVID-19, many people have changed their behaviors and now practice social distancing, wear masks and frequently wash their hands. Those safeguards are effective in limiting flu, COVID-19 and other respiratory-tract infections, Lynch says. As a result of those extra steps, the flu might not be as pronounced as it has been in past years.

Over the summer, the Southern Hemisphere was in full flu season yet did not see flu cases at their typical levels, Lynch says. The results are speculative, but COVID-19 measures may play a part in preventing people from coming down with the flu.

Lynch’s best advice: wear a mask when out in public, practice handwashing and other hygiene, and socially distance … and don’t forget your flu shot. The CDC recommends a flu shot for all people over 6 months of age. “It has a clear and measurable impact in terms of infection rate and level of illness,” Lynch says. “We have to do our very best to keep people home, healthy and out of the hospitals and clinics.”