The changing leaves, cool weather and shorter days signals the start of fall and unfortunately, the beginning of flu season. But this year, as we are still in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, Canadians are facing the unique challenge of a possible twindemic. This new term means the spread of COVID-19 and seasonal influenza at the same time, and that could overwhelm our health care system and make for a troubling winter. Although health officials are preparing for the worst and hoping for the best, the good news is that the measures we are taking to limit COVID-19 should impact influenza too. Here’s what to expect from this year’s flu season and what you need to know to protect yourself and others.
What to Expect
Flu experts look to the experience of countries in the Southern Hemisphere like Australia where winter arrives first to get an idea of how heavy or light flu season should be in other parts of the world. Australia’s flu rates were nearly non-existent this year, likely because of COVID-19 controls combined with a reported 180 per cent increase in flu vaccination rates. So what does this mean for Canadians? While that is good news, health officials are worried that with fewer restrictions in place, kids back at school and more people indoors, flu season in the Northern Hemisphere could be a very different story—especially if there’s a second wave of COVID-19.
Seasonal flu and coronavirus cases could end up causing a greater need for hospital beds, protective equipment and testing and could make diagnosis more complicated, and both diseases can be life-threatening. Although rare, people can be infected with both viruses at the same time and health experts don’t know how serious simultaneous or back-to-back COVID-19 and influenza infections will be, particularly on the respiratory system. And this is extra worrying for at risk populations like older adults, young children and people with underlying health conditions.
What You Can Do
These unknowns sounds scary, but both the flu and COVID-19 are spread by respiratory droplets, so as long as we all remember careful handwashing, masking indoors, physical distancing and staying home when sick throughout our traditional flu season, experts are hopeful that we won’t experience a double epidemic.
Also, the Public Health Agency of Canada is recommending more than ever that all Canadians over six months of age get their annual flu shot. A flu vaccine won’t prevent COVID-19 of course, but getting vaccinated will reduce your chance of catching the flu or passing it on to others, make your symptoms less severe if you do get sick and protect you from getting both viruses at the same time. The flu vaccine is safe and effective and this year, any change in flu numbers and severity could make a difference to hospital capacity.
The overlap of COVID-19 and seasonal influenza further adds to the uncertainty we are all feeling as a result of this pandemic. As we enter flu season, what you can do is stay focused on what we know works—social distancing, hand washing and wearing a mask—and get vaccinated to do your part to prevent an epidemic double whammy.