ATLANTA — If you haven’t heard the word Twindemic yet…get ready. Infectious disease experts are trying to get a jump on the flu season to avoid flooding hospitals with both influenza and COVID cases this winter.
Real protection, will take real participation. Last year, only 45-percent of those who qualified went to go get the influenza vaccine. And the vaccine only prevents the flu about half of the time.
“The effectiveness of the vaccine decreases with age, right. So, the people that need it the most, older individuals, may not have as much protection with the available vaccine. But younger people do. So, if I get myself and my kids immunized, I protect my parents,” Dr. Carlos del Rio, an associate dean at Emory School of Medicine at Grady Health System said.
Before COVID-19, influenza was the deadly virus we worried would kill the elderly and keep our kids home from school. Earlier this year, 72 people in Georgia died from the flu and in 2018, influenza killed three times as many, 243, people in our state.
“Influenza is not a trivial illness,” del Rio said.
Thanks in part to the vaccine, those numbers are small compared to COVID-19, which has killed more than 6,000 people in Georgia. But it’s not just the potentially deadly consequences that have infectious disease experts worried. They’re concerned about what an outbreak of both viruses could do to our hospital system.
“Hopefully a lot of the manufacturers are developing platforms that we will have available that will allow you to test for COVID and influenza simultaneously," Dr. del Rio said.
Throughout the 2019-2020 flu season, the Department of Public Health says 2,519 people were hospitalized with the virus, which was thankfully starting to fade as COVID-19 took hold. Since March, we’ve seen ten times as many people seek medical care for the coronavirus. Even with our downward trend in cases, we still have more COVID in our community now than March and April.
“It would be terrible to have simultaneously closely linked in time, epidemics of influenza and a resurgence of COVID19,” said Dr. Walter Orenstein, the associate director of the Emory Vaccine Center.
But both Emory doctors say they’re hopeful because the same things that protect us from COVID such as washing our hands, wearing a mask, and social distancing, can also protect us from the flu.
“That combined with people getting the vaccine, may actually prevent us from having a significant flu season this year. And that’s exactly what happened in the southern hemisphere. Australia, New Zealand, Chile, Argentina – almost no flu this past winter because they were doing things for COVID,” del Rio explained.
The CDC generally begins to track the next flu season on October 1, but influenza traditionally doesn’t begin to cause problems until November, peaking in late January or February.
Dr. Orenstein says you should get your flu shot whenever you can, but mid-October seems the general rule to maintain protection against the virus' strains into the early spring.
Even with limitations in the flu vaccine's effectiveness and the percent who take it, the CDC estimates in 2018/2019 when approximately 49-percent of the population was vaccinated, 4.4 million illnesses across the United States were prevented. It also helped prevent 58,000 hospitalizations and 3,500 deaths.
Dr. del Rio also stresses the flu doesn’t just severely impact the elderly. He remembers being amazed at how many young people he saw in the intensive care unit while helping in the clinic last January. He talked with one wife who said her husband never got a flu shot.
“Now I understand why our doctor insisted so much on it!” she commented to him.