With all eyes on omicron and the new wave of infections and hospitalizations the coronavirus variant is causing, chances are you’ve forgotten about the flu. But influenza is alive and kicking in the United States — there have been about 30,000 cases reported since October, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Since the start of the pandemic, doctors and public health experts have warned about the dangers of a “twindemic,” where dual rising cases of COVID-19 and flu overwhelm hospitals. But in 2022, a new worry has emerged: “flurona,” a simultaneous infection of both respiratory viruses. (In other words, it’s when you test positive for flu and COVID-19.) In late December, an unvaccinated pregnant Israeli woman was hospitalized with both illnesses. Since then, a handful of cases have surfaced, including in the U.S., mainly among children and teenagers.
The truth is, flurona is nothing new. A review published last year in the journal Frontiers in Medicine found that the frequency of influenza virus coinfection among patients with COVID-19 was 4.5 percent in Asia and 0.4 percent in the U.S. “It’s not surprising that we would see more coinfections this season, given the fact that most people are no longer isolating and are out and about in their communities,” says Greg Poland, M.D., founder and director of the Vaccine Research Group at the Mayo Clinic.
While most cases of flurona have been mild, there’s always heightened concern when it comes to older adults, who are more vulnerable to the effects of both the flu and COVID-19, Poland adds. Up to 85 percent of all flu deaths occur in people age 65 and older, and they account for up to 70 percent of all seasonal flu hospitalizations, according to the CDC. Likewise, the risk of getting very sick and requiring hospitalization from COVID-19 increases even among people in their 50s, with the greatest risk among those 85 and older.
Flu infections tend to peak in January and February, which may make it more likely that you’ll come down with the flu, either alone or as part of a coinfection, says Albert Shaw, M.D., professor of infectious diseases at the Yale School of Medicine. Here’s how to stay safe this winter.
1. Make sure you’re up to date on all your vaccines.
If you haven’t received your COVID-19 booster (and only about half of U.S. adults over the age of 50 have), now’s the time to do it, Poland says. The highly transmissible omicron variant, which is the dominant version of the coronavirus circulating in the U.S., has characteristics that make it better able to sidestep some of the protections offered by the standard vaccine series. But research shows a booster dose can ramp up your defenses against the virus.
And while you’re at it, get your flu shot, too. You can even get both at the same time to save repeat trips to the pharmacy, Shaw adds. While record numbers of people lined up for the flu vaccine last year, fewer did so this year, with less than half of all adults rolling up their sleeves. There are two types of flu shots designed for older adults: the Fluzone High-Dose and Fluad Quadrivalent, both of which could compensate for the weaker immune response that comes with age.