The uncertain nature of the 2020-21 flu season coupled with the pandemic concerns health experts.
In last year’s flu season that lasted from Oct. 1, 2019 to Apr. 4, 2020, somewhere between 24,000 and 62,000 people died of the flu in the U.S., according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates. With more than 9,500 Alachua County residents diagnosed with COVID-19 and 74 residents dead as of Oct. 21, experts fear the potential of an influenza outbreak could possibly exacerbate the already devastating effects of the pandemic.
Some experts point to the possibility of what some are calling a “twindemic,” where flu cases could rise with the climbing number of COVID-19 cases, or patients could contract both the flu and COVID-19 simultaneously.
Dr. Nicole Iovine, the chief epidemiologist at UF Health Shands Hospital, said the subgroups of the population at the highest risk are children under the age of 5 and residents over the age of 65. Residents who fall into these groups should get a flu vaccine as soon as possible, she said.
The CDC recommends that anyone who is suspected to have COVID-19 or has a positive test should postpone their flu shot until they meet the criteria to stop self-isolation to avoid spreading the virus further.
In Alachua County’s four main hospitals, 80.51% of hospital beds are currently occupied as per Alachua County’s COVID-19 Recovery Dashboard. Iovine said she couldn’t speculate as to whether an uptick in influenza cases could have an impact on the capacity of the hospitals this year. Nonetheless, she strongly encourages all residents to get a flu vaccine.
She pointed to the deadly potential of people contracting both the influenza virus and SARS CoV2, the virus that causes COVID-19, at once.
“The bottom line is that we don’t yet know how severe this flu season will be,” Iovine wrote in an email. “Considering that both viruses can cause severe illness and death on their own, the combination is very, very concerning.”
Dr. Kathleen Ryan, a UF Health pediatrician, said that Shands employees are promoting influenza vaccines in primary care clinics both for adults and pediatrics. Their pediatric practices are also providing the flu vaccine to parents and are offering extra flu vaccination clinics on weekends.
She also said the Control Flu Program, which offers no-cost influenza vaccines to all public, private and charter schools in Alachua County, is offering FluMist vaccines administered in the form of a nasal spray to all students again this year.
The school system has been vaccinating both in-person and virtual students, and completed the vaccination of all private and charter schools this year. The program will complete the vaccination of public school students by the beginning of November.
Paul Myers, administrator at the county health department, echoes these concerns.
He emphasizes how important it is for elementary school-aged children to have their parents consent to them being vaccinated through the Control Flu Program. Younger children are the “flu superspreaders” of the county, he said. This is because they spread the virus for longer periods of time than adults.
There are many unknowns heading into the 2020-21 flu season, but Myers said he’s been made hopeful by the less active season seen in the Southern Hemisphere. Aside from the vaccine, mask-wearing and social distancing can help prevent the spread of the influenza virus.
Influenza vaccines are available at the Alachua County Health Department, the UF Student Health Care Center, through primary care providers, at Alachua County schools and some grocery stores and pharmacies.
“There are plenty of opportunities,” Myers said. “But no excuse not to get your flu shot this year.”
Alan Halaly is a first-year journalism and Spanish major and the East Gainesville Beat Reporter. This is his second semester on staff, and he previously worked as a news assistant on the Metro desk. He's excited to use this semester to shine a spotlight on underserved communities in Gainesville.