The 2020-21 flu season saw record-low infection rates, with only about 2,000 cases recorded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) between Sept. 2020 and April 2021. The average number of cases for that period in recent years reached about 206,000.
However, the drop in cases may be short lived. As nurse educator and author Jenna Liphart Rhoads predicts, "I think that the flu season this coming school year will be similar to that of 2019/2020 and not 2020/2021."
How COVID-19 Has Impacted Flu Season
"Influenza is a seasonal illness which occurs mostly in the fall and winter, though cases can be seen year-round," explains pediatric critical care specialist Alceste Villasuso. "During the COVID pandemic, transmission has been low, but there is still concern due to similarities between flu symptoms and COVID-19 symptoms."
These similarities include fever, cough, shortness of breath, and fatigue. COVID-19 patients also reported symptoms distinct from the flu, such as loss of taste or smell.
But as nurse educator Ann Kriebel-Gasparro notes, "At the end of the first wave of COVID-19 deaths across the world, and when some of the strictest lockdowns were in place, health workers noted an abrupt and early halt to the 2019-2020 flu season in the Northern Hemisphere."
Lockdowns, mask-wearing, and social distancing may have contributed to last season's drop in influenza cases.
What This Means for Flu Vaccines
The low number of influenza cases in 2020-21 could be problematic — flu vaccine development depends on the previous year.
"A lack of influenza infections last season will reduce access to data about the strains most likely to circulate next season, potentially resulting in strain mismatch between the vaccine and circulating strains," explains Kriebel-Gasparro.
"When the flu vaccine is similar to the current flu illness, the risk of contracting the flu reduces by 40-60% within the vaccinated population," adds Villasuso.
The shortage of 2020-21 flu data may also indicate "less people are motivated to receive the flu vaccine in the fall," says Rhoads.
Frequently Asked Questions
Can you get COVID-19 and the flu at the same time?
The CDC reports that people can get COVID-19 and the flu simultaneously, but healthcare researchers continue to study how often this occurs. COVID-19 and the flu share several symptoms, so patients suspecting they have both should see their doctor for testing.
Does having the flu reduce my chances of getting COVID-19?
The flu and COVID-19 share symptoms and spread from person to person via coughing, sneezing, and talking, but according to the CDC, the two unrelated viruses do not provide any immunity or reduction of contracting the other.
How is COVID-19 similar to the flu?
Both contagious viruses lead to respiratory illness and share symptoms that can include fever, cough, shortness of breath or difficulty breathing, fatigue, and sore throat, along with nasal congestion, achiness, and vomiting or diarrhea. COVID-19 and the flu spread in many of the same ways through virus-laden droplets.
How can you prevent getting the flu?
The CDC recommends getting an annual flu shot as the most effective way to prevent the flu. Other prevention strategies include limiting contact with others exhibiting illness, washing your hands often, disinfecting surfaces, and avoiding touching your face. Mask-wearing during flu season may also help.
5 Tips for Flu Prevention
Many flu prevention methods parallel those used to prevent the spread of COVID-19. This section lists the flu prevention tips recommended by nurses and the CDC.
- 1. Get a flu shot
- Vaccines prevent the flu.
- "The population needs to continue to be vigilant and prevent the spread of other preventable diseases that could tax our healthcare system," advises Rhoads.
- 2. Limit contact with others with flu symptoms
- The habits developed over the past 15 months still apply.
- "As mask-wearing and social distancing relax, these transmissible ailments will become prevalent once again," says Villasuso.
- 3. Wash your hands
- "Scientists have learned that the flu season can be regulated, or even quelled, through the strategies learned from the COVID-19 pandemic," offers Kriebel-Gasparro.
- 4. Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth
- The CDC lists this as one of the easiest everyday actions that help people avoid the flu. Eyes, noses, and mouths provide direct pathways for germs.
- 5. Disinfect surfaces
- Wiping down surfaces at home, in the office, or in the car prevents infection.
- Rhoads hopes that "rigorous cleaning continues to be the norm in our society."
Meet Our Contributors
Ann Kriebel-Gasparro, DNP, FNP-BC, GNP-BC, faculty member in Walden University's master of science in nursing program, has more than 26 years of experience in nursing. She is dually credentialled as a family and gerontological nurse practitioner. In her clinical practice, Dr. Kriebel-Gasparro provides in-home health care for elderly patients.
Dr. Kriebel-Gasparro is a current member of the Gerontological Advanced Practice Nurses Association and previously served on the Rare Disease Advisory Council for the Department of Health for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.
Jenna Liphart Rhoads
Dr. Jenna Liphart Rhoads is a nurse educator, freelance author, and editor. She earned a bachelor of science in nursing (BSN) from Saint Francis Medical Center College of Nursing and a master of science in nursing education from Northern Illinois University.
Jenna earned a Ph.D. in education with a concentration in nursing education from Capella University, where she researched the moderation effects of emotional intelligence on the relationship of stress and GPA in military veteran nursing students.
Her clinical background includes surgical/trauma adult critical care, interventional radiology procedures, and conscious sedation in adult and pediatric populations. She currently resides in Wisconsin with her husband and two children.
Alceste Villasuso attended the University of Florida, where she received a bachelor of science in health education and promotion in 2011, as well as a BSN in 2012. She went on to obtain a doctor of nursing practice from the University of Florida. Prior to joining Pediatric Critical Care of South Florida, Alceste worked in South Florida as a registered nurse in pediatric critical care.
Alceste has a special interest in caring for critically ill children and is passionate about health education for her patients, families, and community. She is an active member of the National Association of Pediatric Nurse Practitioners, as well as the Nurse Practitioner Council of Miami Dade Inc. When not at work, Alceste enjoys cooking, traveling, and spending time outdoors with her family.
Feature Image: Tetra Images / Brand X Pictures / Getty Images
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