by Peter Kates
Flu activity was unusually low throughout the 2020-2021 flu season both in the United States and globally, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the reason is not a surprise. The safety protocols implemented to protect against COVID-19, including wearing face masks, proper and regular hand washing, physical distancing, and limiting exposure to large gatherings of people, also prevented the spread of the flu. The availability of a record number of flu vaccine doses was also a factor.
“The statistics from the CDC indicate that more influenza vaccine doses than ever before (193.8 million doses) were distributed in the U.S. during the last flu season,” said Univera Healthcare Medical Director Anna Kanaley, D.O. During last year’s flu season, only 0.2 percent of respiratory specimens tested by U.S. clinical laboratories were positive for an influenza virus. For comparison, during the last three seasons before the COVID-19 pandemic, the proportion of respiratory specimens testing positive for influenza peaked between 26.2 and 30.3 percent.
The exact timing and duration of flu seasons can vary from year to year, but influenza activity often begins to increase in October, peaks between December and February, and can last as late as May.
“Each year brings a new formulation for the flu vaccine to reflect the different strains that are expected, so it’s important for everyone to get the flu vaccine each year,” said Kanaley. “The vaccine can provide a level of immunity to influenza or reduce the severity if you do get sick.”
Kanaley cautions not to take the flu lightly, noting that two years ago, which was a more typical year for flu activity, the CDC tracked 405,000 American hospitalizations and 22,000 deaths from the flu and flu-related complications.
The flu vaccine is now available at most major pharmacies and other sites in our community. The CDC recommends it for everyone 6 months and older. Adults 65 and older should consult with their health care provider to see if they recommend the high-dose flu vaccine that is approved for people in that age group. Most health insurance plans cover the flu vaccine in full, and you usually don’t need an appointment to receive it at a pharmacy. “While it is never too early or too late in the flu season to get vaccinated, sooner is better to help establish a level of herd immunity in our community,” said Kanaley. “It takes about two weeks for the vaccine to provide protection.”
According to the CDC, common symptoms the flu and COVID-19 share are fever or feeling feverish/chills; cough, shortness of breath or difficulty breathing; fatigue (tiredness); sore throat; runny or stuffy nose; muscle pain or body aches; and headache. Some people may have vomiting and diarrhea, although this is more common in children than adults.
“Connect with your health care provider right away to get an accurate diagnosis and appropriate treatment at the earliest stages,” said Kanaley.
Peter Kates is Vice President of Communications at Univera Healthcare.