Next year’s flu season could pack double punch with COVID-19

The push will be strong in the fall for flu shots, in the event the coronavirus pandemic comes back.

Dr. Yuan-Po Tu, infectious disease specialist at The Everett Clinic. (Submitted photo)

Dr. Yuan-Po Tu, infectious disease specialist at The Everett Clinic. (Submitted photo)

EVERETT — Flu season is over. That’s one less thing to worry about — for now.

But public health officials are still talking about flu shots, and the push will be even stronger this year due to COVID-19.

“It is going to be more important to get a flu shot in the fall,” said Dr. Yuan-Po Tu, infectious disease specialist at The Everett Clinic. “We will see a resurgence of coronavirus. The question is when. Is it going to be in the summer or the fall and winter?”

Influenza is seasonal, typically October to April. The course of COVID-19 is a wild card.

There were fewer flu deaths this flu season than last. In Snohomish County, nine people died from influenza, compared with 26 in 2018-2019. Statewide, it claimed 96 lives this year, compared with 245 last season. Most had underlying medical conditions.

The county death toll from COVID-19 is at least 109, with over 814 fatalities in the state.

COVID-19 struck after the peak of flu season, so it is hard to determine what impact school closures and social distancing might have had on the number of influenza cases. There also was a lot more hand-washing and disinfecting going on, which is what flu experts have been preaching for years.

In the fall, though, if the flu and the coronavirus hit at the same time this could pack a double punch. Both illnesses are especially dangerous for seniors and those with chronic health issues.

“If you’re really unlucky, you can get infected with both the flu and COVID at the same time,” Tu said, “and we had at least two patients who had this.”

Clinically, both viruses have similar initial symptoms.

“Both give you fevers, chills, body aches, sore throat, headaches and a cough,” he said.

Both are spread mainly by droplets made when people with the flu cough, sneeze or talk. But COVID-19 is a mystery in terms of how long it lingers in the air and stays on surfaces. It also causes havoc on the body in other ways, such as loss of smell and taste. Tests can determine whether it is flu or COVID-19.

Most respiratory viruses increase in the winter.

“If we pack our hospitals full of flu patients and then we have to pack our hospitals full of COVID patients, there will be a shortage of beds,” Tu said. “It was stressed badly enough with COVID.”

Flu has a distinct season, running roughly October to April. COVID-19 might be a year-round villain.

Flu seasons are unpredictable in terms of strains. There are two main strains, A and B. Typically, influenza A strikes first. This year it was B, and later shifted to the A strain.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates are anywhere from 24,000 to 62,000 flu deaths nationwide this season, with 39 to 56 million flu illnesses. These are preliminary, hence the wide range.

So far, more than 65,000 Americans have died from COVID-19.

“COVID is not flu,” Tu said. “It is clearly much more deadly than flu, especially in the older population, but it’s not restricted to the older population. The last seven weeks we’re basically averaging 100 deaths per week due to COVID (in Washington). Compare that to what happened with the flu.”

Tu doesn’t predict a shortage of flu vaccines, saying manufacturers can keep up with demand.

It is unknown when there will be a vaccine for COVID-19.

“This virus, nobody has any immunity,” Tu said. “Everybody can potentially get infected. It’s spreading. And it’s deadly.”

A flu vaccine is a shot of hope.

“You have a choice to get a flu shot and decrease your risk of coming down with the flu,” Tu said. “Why would you want to run that risk in this day and age?”

Andrea Brown: abrown@heraldnet.com; 425-339-3443. Twitter @reporterbrown.

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