Unpredictable. That’s the word health experts use to describe influenza — especially this year as we approach flu season.
Flu cases and deaths were “unusually” low last year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Just one child died of influenza, which caused the deaths of 199 children from 2019 to 2020.
Many health experts attribute the virtual absence of the flu to precautions we took to slow the spread of COVID-19: wearing masks, washing our hands, maintaining a physical distance and reducing travel. With school closures, there was less opportunity for the flu to spread among children.
Now, schools have returned to in-person learning and we’ve become less vigilant about many of the health practices that seemed to have been doubly beneficial last year.
And that’s why health experts are unsure what to expect with the arrival of flu season.
What is certain is that we will have both the flu and COVID-19 circulating in our community this fall and winter, and that makes getting vaccinations for both viruses critically important.
If you haven’t already been vaccinated against COVID-19, I encourage you to do so. The vaccination is free, and you can easily sign up to get it through the UF Health Care Center. The flu shot also is free and is widely available at numerous locations. You can sign up for a flu shot here.
And good news: The CDC says it is OK to get both vaccinations at the same time, which will be important as booster shots for COVID-19 roll out.
Health experts are looking at two general scenarios for the flu this year. At one extreme is the possibility that, once again, cases will be low. At the other extreme is the possibility that the flu will resurface with a vengeance, given lowered immunity in the community due to last year’s reduced case count.
Some of you may wonder if it is possible to have both the flu and COVID-19 at the same time. The answer is yes, you can be sick with both simultaneously. They do share some symptoms, but a test can help identify whether one or the other virus or both is making you sick.
In Gainesville, flu season generally starts in December and peaks in January or February, though cases can surface as early as October. It is ideal to get an influenza shot before then. The flu vaccine is recommended, with a few exceptions, for everyone ages 6 months and older. There is also an enhanced vaccine for those ages 65 and older.
Getting vaccinated against COVID-19 and the flu — and continuing to wear a mask! — is a Gator thing to do. It is good for you, good for our university and good for the greater Gainesville community. It will help reduce the spread of both illnesses to those who have weakened immune systems and are most vulnerable to serious illness. And it will reduce pressure on our health providers, clinics and hospitals, which have been performing at heroic levels throughout this pandemic.
So Gators, let’s do this!
Dr. Ron Berry is the director of the University of Florida Student Health Care Center.