As the United States continues to grapple with increasing COVID-19 cases and overwhelmed hospitals, health officials are urging people to get their flu shots now. The warning advising people to get flu shots as soon as possible comes as two studies warn that this flu season could be a “miserable” one.
“There are some factors that we cannot control as far as how bad the flu season is going to be,” Xiaoyan Song, chief infection control officer at Children’s National Hospital in Washington, D.C., said, adding, “but there are some that we absolutely have control over.”
“Get vaccinated,” she said, NBC News reported.
According to the experts, it is extremely difficult to forecast what may happen in any flu season. But different factors combined will make this winter though.
As children go back to school where mask mandates and other measures have eased up, it might be easier for them to contract the flu and other viruses since the flu was almost nonexistent last year, and people are not exposed to the virus potentially undermining the protection they usually have.
“Much of the immunity that we have as a population occurs because people in the population had influenza last year, and if they get a similar strain circulating, they won’t get influenza the second year,” Dr. Mark Roberts, director of the Public Health Dynamics Laboratory at the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health, said in a recent media briefing.
In short, the dramatic decrease in flu cases last year has the possibility to dramatically increase cases this year, he said.
Roberts together with his team used mathematical modeling to conduct two studies with goals to predict hospitalizations during the flu season. Both studies were posted on a preprint server called medRxiv and have not been peer-reviewed.
According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there are about 200, 000 people on average that are hospitalized with the flu every year. Roberts’ team estimated that the 2021-2022 flu season could have 600, 000 hospitalizations.
Although this is just a worst-case scenario given that there is a highly contagious flu strain combined with low vaccination rates, Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease expert at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, said that there are no new or worrisome flu variants seen at the moment.
But with the given scenario, the models indicated that 75% of Americans would have to get the flu shot to avoid additional hospitalizations. Generally, only half of the U.S. population gets the flu vaccine yearly.
The requests to get flu shots come as many hospitals are facing an unseasonal surge of patients, especially children, who contract viruses that are normally seen during the winter season such as the RSV, or respiratory syncytial virus.
These viruses, which include those that cause croup and hand, foot, and mouth disease, “all came on very strong over the course of spring and summer as people loosened up in terms of masking and social distancing,” according to Dr. Davin Kimberlin, co-director of the division of pediatric infectious diseases, at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
Kimberlin also states that right now, hospitals are full and overwhelmed with COVID19 cases specifically the Delta variant. And adding influenza to these existing viruses, “has the potential to be catastrophic.”
Schaffner, of Vanderbilt University Medical Center, agreed. “It could very well be that we have three major viruses” circulating this winter, he said.
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics on Tuesday, when breakthrough influenza infections happen, they are normally mild and don’t need hospitalization. Keeping flu patients, especially children, out of the hospitals this coming winter season is critical because of the other viruses that exist.
“The flu vaccines are not outstanding, but they’re good,” Kimberlin said. “If I’m going into battle and someone says, ‘Do you want to put armor on 50 percent of your body or wear nothing?’ what do you think I’m going to do?” he said.
“Take advantage of what we have.”