What to know about the flu and COVID-19

covidandfluseason_largeEditor’s note: As what we know about COVID-19 evolves, so could the information in this story. Find our most recent COVID-19 blog posts here, and learn the latest in COVID-19 prevention at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Even though we’re still in the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve seen a lighter flu season than usual. So far, we haven’t seen any flu in the emergency department here at Ohio State. How can we take what we’ve learned this year into future flu seasons?

Why have we seen a lighter flu season?

The CDC’s reported flu activity for this season is dramatically lower than last year. Why is that? First of all, COVID-19 guidelines, like wearing masks and social distancing, are also effective in slowing flu transmission. The flu can be spread by droplets in the air, similar to COVID. Health care workers were masking up during flu season before the COVID-19 pandemic because it’s an effective way to limit flu transmission. Wearing a mask and social distancing can stop droplets that transmit both the flu and coronavirus.

Hand hygiene has also affected our lighter flu season. People are more aware of how important hand washing is in keeping themselves and those around them healthy. Hand sanitizer is now widely available when entering stores and other public areas, unlike prior years. One other significant cause of a lighter flu season is that we aren’t gathering in large groups. The flu is no longer being spread around an office or break room when everyone is working from home.

There has been a clear increase in the rate of flu vaccinations this year as well. This could be from the fear of getting both COVID-19 and the flu, or that people had more time to get vaccinated. Either way, higher rates of vaccination leads to less flu transmission.

What we can do in the future

We can learn from this flu season to continue to keep flu seasons less severe in the future. Before the pandemic, we lived with the general expectation that we should go to work and school if we were sick. It’s important to create a culture where it’s OK to stay home if you’re sick. That can look different in different workplaces, like video conferencing into meetings or allowing for adequate sick days. Not everyone has the benefit of sick leave. We should encourage a balance in allowing employees to stay home in order to keep everyone healthy. When sick leave isn’t an option, we now know how impactful masking, hand hygiene and social distancing can be to help prevent spread of airborne infections.

Coming out of the pandemic, we still may wear masks, but not all the time. It could be helpful to wear a mask to protect those around you if the flu is going around. Maybe we could even see recommended mask use in geographic areas where flu transmission is high. It’s important to protect others from the flu the way we’re trying to protect others from COVID-19 because the flu can also cause hospitalizations and ventilator use.

Will this lighter flu season lead to a more serious season next year?

We’re not sure what next year’s flu season will look like. Experts use data from the Southern Hemisphere flu season, which occurs during our summer, to anticipate the flu strains for the flu vaccine.

With coronavirus restrictions, flu transmission could remain low, which might lead to less data on flu strains. It’s important to keep taking the safety steps that we have during the COVID-19 pandemic. Wearing a mask, staying 6 feet apart and washing your hands can help keep you and others from getting the flu.

Don’t get comfortable in this flu season

While we’ve had a light flu season thus far, there can still be a spike. It’s easy to become relaxed if you’ve been vaccinated or recovered from a confirmed case of COVID-19. Keeping up the well-established precautions can keep flu transmission low and not overwhelm our health care system with the need to treat both flu and COVID-19 patients.

Eric Adkins is an emergency medicine physician at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center and an associate professor in the Ohio State College of Medicine.