Miami – Flu season has officially begun in the United States, but many are still wondering how the global coronavirus pandemic may exacerbate its effect. Medical professionals are referring to the confluence as a "twindemic."
“We know that flu seasons can be very severe and historically, can lead to thousands of deaths every year," said Dr. Nicole Iovine, an epidemiologist at the University of Florida. "That added on to the ongoing pandemic ... is extremely, extremely concerning,”
For some, it may be hard to recognize which symptoms go with each illness.
“Influenza typically will have a pretty sudden onset. You might feel okay in the morning and then feel really bad by the evening and coronavirus does more of a slow burn, so to speak. So that can sort of start out very, very mild and stay mild for days and days and some people will just get better, but others will become severely ill, typically in the second week of illness,” Iovine said.
Dr. Marissa Levine, a professor of public health at the University of South Florida, said there is a silver lining. With travel down and social distancing up, doctors say this year’s flu season may be less severe because of the safety measures already in use for COVID-19.
“The symptoms are very similar, so the best advice I can give is you don't want either," Levine said. "They're both respiratory infections. So if we keep our distance, if we use face coverings, if we wash our hands and do all the hygienic activities we've talked about, we could actually see a very limited flu season."
Levine said events on the other side of the world — in regions that have already experienced winter — may help predict what we’ll face.
“Australia, for example, reported a very mild flu season, and some people believe that's related to all of the precautions for COVID. It's not a guarantee, it's a hopeful sign,” Levine said.
Iovine said one of the worst-case scenarios is having community outbreak of both COVID-19 and the flu at the same time. A new test from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) checks for both viruses with one swab. Doctors at the University of Florida Health say they plan to use it soon.
“One of the reasons we really need these tests, who can distinguish between flu and coronavirus, is that it's because the symptoms overlap,” Iovine said.
Doctors want people to wear their masks, keep socially distant and with rare exceptions, get their flu shots this year.
According to the CDC, the 2019-2020 flu season in the U.S. saw 38 million infections and 22,000 flu deaths. Since the first confirmed case of COVID-19 in the U.S. on Jan. 21, the virus has killed 221,000 and infected over 8 million Americans.