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What Flu Season Looks Like So Far

Experts urge precautions — and flu shot — this winter

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En español | With coronavirus cases on the rise, public health experts are keeping an eye on another respiratory illness, the seasonal flu, which typically peaks between December and February in the United States.

For months experts have warned that a possible “twindemic” — an overlap between the 2020–21 flu season and coronavirus infections — could overwhelm hospitals and the health care system.

Fortunately, while many health care systems are strained to the breaking point with COVID-19 cases, flu activity remains low across the majority of states. In fact, just one — Oklahoma — is reporting “moderate” levels of flulike illness as of Dec. 12, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). All other regions, the agency reports, are experiencing “low” or “minimal” levels of the virus.

A slow start to this year's flu season

"So far, so good,” says William Schaffner, M.D., medical director of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases. He adds that flu activity is lower than typically seen at this time of year.

One possible reason, according to experts, is that precautions intended to slow the spread of COVID-19 (like mask wearing and social distancing) may also, in theory, slow the spread of the flu virus, which is primarily passed from person to person through respiratory droplets.

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Schaffner says the southern hemisphere, which had a “remarkably low” flu season from June to August, could provide other clues to the relatively low numbers of influenza infections so far. “Our colleagues in Australia and New Zealand attribute their very low influenza season to the combination of both lots of flu vaccine but also being quite compliant with the recommendation to stay at home, [avoid] large groups, and wear a mask.”

But low case counts shouldn't be interpreted as a guarantee for the rest of the season, he cautions, especially as upcoming winter weather and the holiday season will likely drive people to gather indoors.

Why — and where — to get a flu shot now

The best way to stay protected against the flu is to get vaccinated, Schaffner says — and it's not too late for a flu shot if you haven't rolled up your sleeve already.

The flu vaccine not only helps prevent illness but also lessens the duration and severity of symptoms if you do catch the virus, leading to a reduction in doctor's visits and flu hospitalizations overall. In the 2019–20 flu season, for example, the CDC estimates that the flu vaccine prevented 3.7 million flu-related medical visits and 105,000 hospitalizations.

As this flu season progresses, Schaffner says, the benefit of vaccination will be particularly important to prevent added strain on a medical system already taxed by the coronavirus pandemic.

Major retailers, such as Walmart, Walgreens and CVS, are offering the flu shot, including the high-dose and/or adjuvanted vaccines recommended for people 65 and older.

The CDC reports that there is no national flu shot shortage or delay in distribution, but increased demand has caused some retailers to experience temporary “spot” shortages, which happen when providers run out of flu shots before receiving their next shipment from manufacturers.

If you still need to get vaccinated, contact your pharmacy in advance to make sure it has the flu shot in stock. If you strike out at your preferred pharmacy, know that doctor's offices, local health departments and urgent care facilities also offer the vaccine, which is typically free with insurance.

Bottom line? “Don't linger,” Schaffner says. “Go ahead and get that flu shot. We want to do everything we can to minimize the impact of the influenza this year."

This story, originally published on November 19, 2020, has been updated to reflect new information from the CDC.

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