Many Americans are focused on preventing coronavirus, but forget that winter is peak influenza season and the need to get a flu shot is still crucial in preventing infections.
Peak flu infections occur during December and continue into February, but the increased activity can continue until May, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
On Nov. 10, The Los Angeles County Department of Public Health reported its first influenza-related death of the current 2021-22 flu season.
“The individual tested negative for COVID-19 multiple times over the course of his illness,” the news release said. “The person had not yet been vaccinated for seasonal influenza this season.”
Last winter, influenza infection rates dramatically dropped, and research conducted at the University of Pittsburgh and funded by the CDC suggested the circulation of influenza and other respiratory viruses was likely suppressed by measures implemented to slow the spread of COVID-19.
“Implementation of public health preventive measures such as social distancing, mask-wearing, school closure and decreased international travel” contributed to the drop in flu cases, research conducted at the University of Pittsburgh said.
Bud Lawrence, medical director of emergency care at Henry Mayo Newhall Hospital, said people have focused on COVID-19 for almost two years, and seasonal influenza is still out there circulating and should still be considered a concern.
Lawrence said that there wasn’t a significant flu season last year, and few cases of influenza were reported. He credits mask-wearing and students attending school virtually for helping to mitigate flu spread.
“I think that our school system is amazing for what it does for our children, but it also serves as a pool for viruses,” Lawrence said. “So the influenza virus really can circulate around the school system pretty easily.”
Additionally, Lawrence said the precautions helped, but people experiencing COVID fatigue do not wear masks as often, have less social distancing, and attend larger gatherings.
“I think that potentially with kids being in school is going to provide us with a reservoir for influenza this season,” Lawrence said. “So it’s very important to get your flu shot.”
The CDC is reporting flu activity has increased recently, with influenza A (H3N3) being the most dominant virus. Additionally, most infections affected children and adults younger than 24.
The current flu viruses are genetically related to the vaccine virus but have shown to develop antigenic differences and have evolved, according to the CDC.
The annual flu vaccine is still the most effective way to protect yourself from influenza, and CDC recommends everyone older than 6 months get the flu vaccine.
Since the focus is on COVID-19, people aren’t getting their flu shot, but it’s still imperative to get vaccinated — amid the COVID pandemic — because influenza and COVID look very similar, according to health officials.
“We’d like to avoid people getting sick with influenza in the first place,” Lawrence said. “But we also want people to avoid getting an illness that they think might be COVID and having to go through all the troubles of getting tested and potentially quarantining until they get to resolve all these things.”
There are no restrictions about getting your flu shot and your COVID vaccine, and you can get both vaccinations simultaneously. However, in the future, there will likely be a mixed vaccine of coronavirus and influenza for maximum protection during the winter months in particular, according to Lawrence.
“I think we also need to remember that there’s definitely a very common and predictable viral infection out there, and with a flu vaccine, you can hopefully prevent illness in yourself and potentially with your family members in terms of transmission,” Lawrence said.
Visit www.vaccines.gov to find a flu vaccine near you.