An unexpected upside of COVID-19 precautions such as masking indoors and avoiding crowds is that public health experts saw virtually no major flu outbreaks in the United States during the last two years.
That will likely change this year. With most mandatory COVID-19 measures lifted and many people returning to pre-pandemic activities, public health experts predict a significant increase in flu cases this year. And because we’ve experienced virtually no flu for the last two years, our immune systems are not as prepared to fight the flu virus.
Flu and COVID-19
Researchers are particularly worried about Oregon’s hospitals’ ability to handle simultaneous increases in flu and COVID-19 cases that require hospitalization.
“National modelers are expecting a resurgence of flu this year, in addition to the COVID-19 virus that we are also expecting to pick up during the fall and winter,” said Peter Graven, director of the Oregon Health & Science University’s (OHSU) Office of Advanced Analytics.
According to Graven’s latest COVID-19 forecast , COVID-19 cases should continue dropping until November, when they are expected to climb again.
Predicting flu season
“Flu season is notoriously tricky to predict,” said Paul Cieslak, medical director, communicable diseases and immunizations at Oregon Health Authority (OHA). “There are actually four circulating strains of the influenza virus, and every year the viruses evolve slightly to evade yearly vaccines, as well our body’s immune system.”
To help predict the severity of the upcoming flu season in the U.S., researchers monitor the globe for shifting flu strains. They turn to countries that experience fall and winter before we do – those in the southern hemisphere, such as Australia, which experiences fall and winter from April to October. Looking at influenza trends there helps researchers predict what might happen when colder seasons arrive in the northern hemisphere, including in the United States.
This year, based on the rise in flu cases in the southern hemisphere, this year’s flu season in the U.S. may look more like those of pre-pandemic years.
“On top of COVID-19, which we expect will start to rise again in November and December, we expect to have a real influenza season again,” Cieslak said. “With our hospitals still strained and over capacity, we’re pretty concerned. We ask our fellow Oregonians to get boosted, get their flu shots and stay home if they’re at all sick.”
For people at high risk of severe disease, it’s important to check with your health care provider and get tested for COVID-19 and the flu if you feel sick. COVID-19 and the flu have similar symptoms, such as fever, congestion or fatigue, but treatments for each are different. Call 211 if you need help finding a health care provider.
Flu shot timing
Flu vaccines are available now, so get your flu shot as soon as you can. If you have a chronic condition that can make flu symptoms worse, such as diabetes, asthma or heart disease, or if you are 65 or older, or pregnant, it’s even more important to get your flu shot soon. People 65 and older are eligible for a stronger dose of the flu vaccine.
It’s also safe and convenient to get the flu vaccine at the same time as other vaccines, including the new updated COVID-19 bivalent booster, or any COVID-19 vaccination.
More information and resources
Children, especially those under 5, can be more vulnerable to severe flu illness than adults. Vaccinating children against the flu reduces their risk of serious illness and complications, including hospitalization and death. More information for parents and caregivers can be found here.
Call your health care provider or local pharmacy to schedule a flu shot. You can also use this federal locator tool to find a flu vaccine near you.
For those with insurance, including Oregon Health Plan members, flu shots are free. Without insurance, the cost of a flu shot may average around $40. Call 211 if you need support finding a health care provider or locations that offer low-cost or free flu shots.
To stay up to date on the latest flu news in Oregon, subscribe to OHA’s flu newsletter FluBites.