With the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health’s announcement on Wednesday, Nov. 10 of the first reported flu-related death of the 2021-2022 season, it appears that influenza season has officially begun. While most Americans view the flu as just an inevitable bad cold, this year is an important reminder of how this is not always the case. Over a year and a half into the COVID-19 pandemic, the virus that is on the minds of most Americans these days is probably not the flu. However, the general public must be reminded that the flu is, in fact, a highly contagious and deadly disease; it can be spread asymptomatically and it kills about 36,000 Americans per year. Under current circumstances, hyper-vigilance in relation to flu precautions is as important as ever.
The importance of the COVID-19 pandemic’s effect on flu season should be emphasized. The 2020-2021 season in the United States included less than 2,000 confirmed cases of influenza, compared to over 39 million during the 2019-2020 season. There was one reported pediatric death from 2020-2021 versus 199 the year prior. Given these circumstances, one might think that influenza will continue to be far less of a threat this coming season, but that could not be further from the case. Health experts argue that Americans have built up far less natural immunity to the flu this season due to the lack of exposure that occurred in the 2020-2021 season. As a result of social distancing and lockdowns, people have gotten sick less often and haven’t built up the necessary immunity. Under these conditions, personal and institutional behavior changes are critical to hindering the spread of the influenza virus and COVID-19. Public health departments should encourage early testing for these viruses, as COVID-19 and influenza can manifest similar symptoms. Flu tests are not always deemed necessary because most recover from symptoms in a week or two, but given that COVID-19 spreads easier and can be more severe, it is now more critical than ever that people with symptoms be tested for both. Additionally, hyper-vigilance about wearing masks in this upcoming season is as important as ever, and should be encouraged by the government and through organizations like businesses and educational institutions. Furthermore, public health departments should stress the continued necessity of the flu vaccine even as America continues to social distance and enforce mask mandates.
In addition to the dangers caused by our experiences with COVID-19, the approaching cold weather will also be at play this flu season. In a 2007 study, Dr. Peter Palese found that the flu is transmitted better at low temperatures and low humidity than at high temperatures and high humidity. This is most likely because the influenza virus can survive longer in cold, dry air, and subsequently infect many people. Additionally, as temperatures begin to drop and the air becomes drier, the tissues lining the respiratory tract become drier as well, making the surrounding mucus less effective at eliminating incoming viruses. With COVID-19 also benefiting in the same way from low humidity in winter, the case numbers of both diseases could significantly climb. Another factor making us more vulnerable is that in conditions with less sunlight, we have lower levels of vitamin D and melatonin, which weakens our immune systems. Coupled with the human tendency to move indoors and close windows when faced with lower temperatures, the upcoming winter could greatly exacerbate the severity of influenza and COVID-19 this year.
Although the forthcoming flu season is largely inevitable, we can still take simple steps to protect ourselves and others from the virus. In addition to following the COVID-19 prevention measures mentioned above, we can also mitigate the effects of winter on our bodies by making sure we are getting enough vitamin D (supplements are one option), avoiding respiratory tract dryness (using humidifiers), and limiting the number of people we spend time with indoors.
Eliza Zaroff can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Erin Byerly can be reached at email@example.com.