Influenza has seen significant drops in cases since the pandemic began, a trend that has led to many theories among scientists and researchers, but cases this season have seen a small spike and in some areas of the country the two viruses are even sometimes co-infecting people.
“I wouldn’t necessarily say it is something of concern,” Arizona Department of Health Services Assistant Director Jessica Rigler said of the so-called “flurona” cases. “The biggest message here, in addition to COVID-19, influenza is another respiratory illness that is circulating out there in Arizona.”
So far this season, there have been nearly 4,000 cases of influenza reported, more than 400% more than the 751 cases reported during the entirety of last season. Rigler said ADHS is seeing more flu cases than predicted, but she noted cases have begun to plateau.
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Cases of flu began to increase in mid-November and peaked around Christmas, when they quickly began falling off. Around this same time, omicron COVID-19 cases skyrocketed.
“There is evidence to suggest that these viruses are competing for the same hosts,” Richard J. Webby, PhD, an expert in influenza and a member of the Infectious Diseases Department at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and the World Health Organization’s Vaccine Composition Team, said about the current flu season. “It can be rare that we see these large outbreaks of these respiratory outbreaks at the exact same time.”
Tracking exactly how many people have the flu in the state when COVID-19 is spreading might also be more tricky than it seems.
“It is certainly possible that there is more flu circulating than is reported,” Rigler admitted. Both the most prevalent form of COVID-19 in the state and the flu present similar symptoms, and those who test negative for COVID-19 may not seek out additional testing.
“There was always a lot of overlap in symptoms, but those classic (COVID-19) symptoms don’t seem to be as associated with the omicron infection,” Webby said. Things like loss of taste are not generally associated with the new variant, which predominantly attacks the upper respiratory system as opposed to the lower respiratory system like the other variants before it.
Despite the flu dropping off due to omicron surging, Webby says Arizonans should still keep their guard up.
“The big question on my mind… is, as omicron goes down, do flu numbers go back up?” he said.
The flu is still a deadly virus, and it has already killed nine Arizonans this season. Last year, when flu cases were almost non-existent, only two people died. The year before that, there were 160 flu deaths.
Rigler urged those who test negative for COVID-19 but feel flu-like symptoms to get tested to determine if you qualify for an influenza antiviral drug.
“If you feel like you have some respiratory illness regardless, you don’t want to spread it to anyone so you should stay at home,” Webby said, adding that many of the mitigation measures we’ve been practicing the past two years for COVID work for the flu as well.
Masking, social distancing, hand-washing and avoiding others are the best ways to avoid both getting sick and infecting others. Additionally, one of the biggest ways to help prevent infection and serious infection is to get a flu vaccination, both Rigler and Webby said.
Many places will offer flu vaccines for free or at discounted rates; information about where to find a flu vaccine can be found here.
As for COVID-19, Arizona is starting to see a possible slow down in cases during what has been a record-breaking surge.
“It is important to remember that, even if we peak in the number of cases, we are not out of the woods,” Dr. Joshua LaBaer, executive director of Arizona State University’s Biodesign Institute, said in a call with reporters Wednesday.
LaBaer stressed that hospitals and healthcare workers are still strained as healthcare workers are continuing to work in “war-like conditions,” all while remaining understaffed.
Rigler said ADHS is closely watching flu cases, as the virus can also cause hospitalization. Currently, only 6% of all inpatient and 6% of intensive care unit beds in the entire state are available.
“The mitigation strategies that people use to protect themselves from COVID help protect them from influenza,” Rigler said, emphasizing that flu vaccines are free and in “ample supply.”
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