Just when it seems like the COVID-19 pandemic might be ebbing, doctors are warning of a new threat: an especially nasty, possibly “catastrophic” flu season.
Ironically, the dire predictions are a result of last winter’s startlingly mild flu season.
In a statement to CNBC, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said there were so few influenza illnesses in the U.S. last year that the agency could not estimate how bad the 2021-2022 flu season will be in the U.S.
But that very success has put the U.S. in danger of a “catastrophic” flu season this year, says epidemiologist Lauren Ancel Meyers, director of the University of Texas COVID-19 Modeling Consortium. She tells CNBC:
“As with COVID, when somebody recovers from a seasonal influenza infection, they retain some level of immunity that protects them against future infection, at least for a short period of time. Since our COVID mitigation measures prevented influenza transmission last year, there are not a whole lot of people who were recently infected.”
The means that as flu season approaches, people might be more susceptible than usual to getting sick from the flu.
The lack of flu illness last season largely has been attributed to the fact that people took precautions — including staying home more, wearing masks and remaining social distanced when out — to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus, which causes the disease COVID-19.
The measures worked so well that last flu season, the proportion of respiratory viruses testing positive for influenza remained lower than 0.4% during every week, the CDC told CNBC. Compare that to the three prior flu seasons, when the peak proportion of respiratory viruses testing positive for flu weekly was between 26.2% and 30.3%.
How to protect yourself from the flu this year
Your best defense against falling ill to the flu this year is the same as ever — get your flu shot once the vaccine becomes available in the fall.
The CDC notes that the flu vaccine’s effectiveness varies from season to season. However, studies have found that when there is a good match between the circulating flu viruses and the vaccine, vaccination typically reduces the risk of flu illness by between 40% and 60% among the overall population.
And by getting vaccinated, you can help reduce the burden on the nation’s health care system — which means scarce medical resources can be devoted to those who become ill this fall and winter.