How to Avoid a Deadly Mix of Covid-19 and the Flu

There’s some potentially good news for the United States

Photo: Yulia Naumenko/Getty Images

Health experts have expressed concern over what could happen if the Covid-19 pandemic collides with the seasonal flu. The seasonal flu, caused by influenza viruses, is typically widespread in the United States: It’s estimated the viruses have caused between 9.3 million and 49 million illnesses each year in the country since 2010.

Since the Covid-19 pandemic is not showing any signs of slowing in certain parts of the U.S., there’s concern the two respiratory viruses in one season could put undue strain on the nation’s health care force. “I do think the fall and winter of 2020 and 2021 are going to be probably one of the most difficult times that we’ve experienced in American public health,” Robert R. Redfield, MD, the director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), told the Journal of the American Medical Association in July.

However, there’s encouraging data to suggest that the precautions put in place to prevent the spread of Covid-19 could also reduce the spread of the seasonal flu. Surveillance data shows the Southern Hemisphere, where flu cases typically peak in August, is experiencing lower than expected cases. This is likely due to the strict measures taken to prevent the spread of Covid-19.

In a Wall Street Journal story, some doctors abroad warned that without those strict measures — including lockdowns, bans on large gatherings, closed schools, and behaviors like mask-wearing and hand-washing — flu cases likely would’ve come back at usual levels. This is a cautionary message for the United States, where businesses and schools are opening across the nation. What’s more, spending time indoors during winter months could increase the risk for Covid-19 spread, as the virus spreads more effectively inside.

“The flu and Covid-19 are spread in similar ways, so it’s possible that measures such as social distancing and wearing masks will reduce the transmission of the flu as well as Covid-19,” says Robin Patel, MD, the president of the American Society for Microbiology. “It is not yet clear how this will play out, though, as different regions have different guidelines on social distancing and masking in place.”

The overall message is that the same precautions known to prevent Covid-19 infection — mask-wearing, hand-washing, and social distancing — will be important to prevent the spread of flu. This season’s flu vaccine will also be critical.

Health and science journalist. Former editor of Medium’s Covid-19 Blog and deputy editor at Elemental. TIME Magazine writer before that

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