Pandemic Preparedness Enters New Phase
This year, the looming threats of parallel flu and COVID-19 outbreaks look like they could become reality in the U.S. Cases of respiratory infection remain high throughout the country according to recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Meanwhile, COVID-19 continues to linger alongside common colds and respiratory viruses. A big concern is that the symptoms of each can easily be conflated: fever, cough, muscle ache, and fatigue.
With COVID-19 now a part of the mix, it’s vital for the public and healthcare providers to recognize the importance of taking steps to prevent, properly diagnose and treat the flu – through flu vaccines for prevention, timely testing and diagnosis of illness, and quick treatment with flu antivirals, all of which are as important as ever.
It’s also crucial for people to be aware of the domino effect that casually self-diagnosing and shrugging symptoms off as “just a cold” can have on themselves or others.
Fortunately, it’s not too late for the public to take preventive steps to mitigate the spread of flu and COVID-19 at home, work and elsewhere. They can do this by getting vaccinated for flu and COVID-19, staying up to date on boosters, and being educated about what and what not to do if they or a loved one feel unwell (the short answer: get tested quickly with a broad spectrum PCR test that can detect both COVID-19 and flu viruses and, if diagnosed and eligible, promptly start proper treatment and take appropriate measures to prevent spread). There’s also a need for the public to better understand testing options, why medical recommendations can and should change, and why protecting the most vulnerable among us means protecting us all.
Why this flu season could seem particularly severe
Until recently, the incidence of flu during the COVID-19 pandemic was sharply lower than usual as practices such as social distancing, hand hygiene and masks helped curb the spread of COVID and limited viruses in general. The CDC logged 1,316 flu cases in its surveillance network between late September 2020 and the end of January 2021, just 1% of the nearly 130,000 cases logged in the year-earlier period. That led many people to stop focusing on flu prevention, but the reprieve from flu isn’t permanent.
Just since October 1, 2022, the CDC estimates that between 20 million and 41 million people have developed flu-like illnesses in the U.S. as of December 24, 2022, resulting in 9.4 million to 20 million medical visits, 210,000 to 450,000 hospitalizations, and 13,000 to 39,000 deaths. With COVID-19 strains continuing to circulate as cases of respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) soar, policymakers, healthcare providers and the general public are beginning to consider the possibility of a “tripledemic” that could severely impact households, schools, workplaces and healthcare systems.
What we’ve learned from COVID-19: The importance of detection and prevention
The COVID-19 pandemic produced a sense of urgency around responding to infectious disease as experts rapidly developed vaccines and treatments. We can use the lessons we’ve learned to better manage this flu season and make the future of infectious disease—including potential pandemics—less destructive, such as by having clinical trial infrastructure ready to go to accelerate development of future vaccines and treatments.
We’ve also learned that physical distancing, masks, and testing for COVID are crucial, but pandemic fatigue may tempt us to skip masks and tests or try to power through symptoms that could now be the flu. And though people have cited changing scientific information, as well as evolving advice about behaviors, testing and treatment as proof that science doesn’t work, such shifts demonstrate it’s working as it should: It is healthy and necessary for scientific experts to analyze and even debate new information, and then adjust how we should respond to it.
Having new and better tools can also change how we should respond. High-quality, speedy, multiplex PCR tests can accurately diagnose multiple virus strains in a physician’s office at once. Effective antiviral treatments are another tool.
Protecting the most vulnerable
COVID-19 is also raising awareness of the added public health responsibility we all have to those around us who are vulnerable to severe disease, including ourselves if we fall in this category. Age, pregnancy, being a certain ethnicity or race, or having immunocompromising conditions such as chronic respiratory disease or chronic heart disease can heighten the risk of getting COVID-19 and flu, according to the CDC.
So, taking protective measures to avoid and properly manage viruses can help slow the spread in our communities.
What you can do to help raise defenses against viral threats
- Get vaccinated and stay up to date on boosters. Vaccination against the flu and COVID-19 is the first line of defense. Bear in mind that getting vaccinated doesn’t mean you can’t get infected. It can make illnesses less severe if you do get sick, however. The best time to get vaccinated is right away, but it’s never too late. Although there’s a “flu season,” the virus circulates yearlong.
- Seek broad testing and prompt diagnosis for COVID-19 and flu. With multiple viruses circulating and overlapping symptoms, it’s important to see a healthcare professional as soon as possible to get an accurate diagnosis. And remember that multiplex PCR tests can accurately diagnose multiple virus strains in a physician’s office. (Of course, for medical emergencies, call 911.)
- Get treatment. Treatments exist for both COVID-19 and the flu, and for high-risk populations can be particularly effective at reducing the risk of severe illness. But that effectiveness wanes the longer you wait to begin treatment—antivirals work best when taken as soon as possible after the onset of symptoms.
- Mask and social distance if recommended. Remember that if unwell or around others who are, taking additional measures such as masking and social distancing can reduce chances of spread.
To learn more, speak with your healthcare professional or visit the official website of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) at cdc.gov.