SCHENECTADY — After a few years of reprieve, Influenza, more commonly known as the flu, is expected to be back with a vengeance this flu season.
The last two years, cases of the flu have been on the low side compared with typical years. The years of masking up, extra handwashing and social distancing because of COVID-19 helped keep cases of Influenza down as well, but now the virus is expected to be back in full swing this season.
“Obviously, we don’t know every year how the flu will come, it’s different every year,” said Dr. Danielle Wales, associate professor of Internal Medicine and Pediatrics at Albany Medical Center. “But we do know that Australia, which is usually a predictor of how things will be in the United States, just had their worst flu season in five years.”
The contagious respiratory illness can infect the nose, throat or lungs. Influenza can inflict a wide range of symptoms, which can vary from more mild to very severe, and in some cases can lead to death.
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Based on Australia’s indicator, Wales said she is concerned there will be a “rough” flu season here as well. In Australia, the recent flu season started earlier than usual, and it also affected children more than usual, she said.
“The last couple of years, the flu has been very interesting,” Wales said. “When COVID first came around, we hardly saw any flu. That’s probably because people were masking and washing their hands and getting their flu shots. Last year, the flu came a lot later than it normally would; in fact, we were seeing it into the summer.”
The flu is considered to be “widespread” when more than half of the state’s counties are reporting confirmed cases of the virus. As of October 3, 44 of the state’s 62 counties have had confirmed cases, according to the state department of health.
“With COVID for the last several years, flu seasons have been relatively mild,” said Dr. Brian McDermott, Infectious Disease physician at Saratoga Hospital. “This year, the anticipation is that we will see significantly more flu, much more like a traditional flu season than we have for the last several years.”
Areas in the southern hemisphere have their winter during our summer months. This year, places in the southern hemisphere, such as New Zealand or Australia, had a flu season that was not as mild for the flu as it has been in recent years, McDermott said. Those areas had a flu season which more closely resembled a typical flu season pre-COVID, he explained.
“They’ve now had a regular full-on flu season just like we used to have before COVID,” McDermott said. “With the added bonus that now COVID is mixed in with your influenza cases at the same time. Without the testing, it’s nearly impossible to distinguish between the two.”
This has added a second level of “confounding difficulty” to taking care of patients, and ensuring people are kept properly separated, McDermott said.
“I anticipate we will have a complicated influenza season this winter,” McDermott said.
The combination of a full flu season, and COVID cases similar to what we have been experiencing will make this flu season more complicated, McDermott said.
“There’s nothing on the horizon that says that this year’s flu strain is particularly more virulent than other years,” McDermott said. “Some year’s we’ve had very bad flu seasons, some year’s we’ve had relatively mild ones, so I’m not seeing that this is anything more than average, or maybe a little above average, but still markedly more than we’ve had for at least three years.”
Each year, the flu is a new variant of the flu virus from the previous year, McDermott said. Sometimes that change is small and other times it is big. He explained, when there is a big change in the Influenza virus then people have a more difficult time coping with it as a new infection and it causes more disease.
Dr. David Libers, an infectious disease specialist at Ellis Medicine, believes most people in the medical field are concerned about the flu season this winter.
“We’re concerned seeing what happened to Australia, maybe we’ll see the same thing,” Libers said. “Then we add onto the fact that we have relaxed a lot of our restrictions and recommendations.”
The other issue, Libers explained which may add to the upcoming flu season is vaccine fatigue.
“People are, I think, sick of vaccines, sick of or perhaps less likely to get a flu vaccine this year,” Libers said. “Flu vaccines are recommended for just about everybody above the age six months, and flu vaccines can definitely decrease the severity, and probably decrease the transmission of influenza.”
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School-age children are often the source of how Influenza gets into a family, Libers said. Children are back together in schools and masking and social distancing are no longer required as they were last year, he explained.
The flu typically presents in more severe cases when the strain has changed dramatically, Libers said. The upcoming flu season is expected to be worse than recent years in terms of the number of cases that are expected to arise, not in the severity of the cases, he explained.
Local medical professionals, The CDC, the New York State Department of Health all recommend getting the yearly flu shot as the best means of preventing the flu.
The United States usually averages between an estimated 10,000 and 25,000 flu-related deaths in a given flu season, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Protection. The CDC did not report an estimated average for the 2020-2021 season because there was minimal flu activity. The CDC reported that in the 2021-2022 flu season, there was an estimated 5,000 deaths.
Influenza, combined with Pneumonia is the nation’s eighth leading cause of death, according to the state Department of Health. In the United States, the flu and its related complications result in an average of 226,000 hospitalizations and close to 24,000 deaths annually.
Flu season usually lasts from October to May and peaks between December and February. The State Department of Health reported higher than usual numbers in September. The week ending October 1, the state had 596 laboratory confirmed cases of Influenza.
The New York State Department of Health reminded everyone to get their annual flu shot earlier this week. The DOH reported cases of influenza have been increasing since September. New York had 596 laboratory-confirmed cases of the influenza for the week ending October 1.
“I urge all New Yorkers to protect themselves and their family and friends by getting a flu vaccine as soon as possible,” New York State Health Commissioner Dr. Mary T. Bassett said in a statement Wednesday. “With the early and aggressive spread of influenza, the annual flu shot is the most effective protection against serious illness.
Anyone can contract the flu, and people can contract serious complications from the flu at any age, according to the New York State Department of Health. Some groups of people are at higher risk for more severe complications from the flu, such as older people, young children, pregnant women and people with certain medical conditions, or who are on certain medications which can weaken their immune system.
The COVID-19 booster can also be administered at the same time as the flu shot to further protect your health and those around you, Bassett said.
COVID-19 and the flu are both considered to be contagious respiratory illnesses with similar symptoms. According to the CDC, COVID and Influenza can both have symptoms such as fever, cough, sore throat, stuffed or runny nose, body aches, headaches, chills or fatigue, and with both viruses the symptoms could be very mild or more severe.
With both COVID-19 and the flu some individuals may have no symptoms at all when they have contracted the virus.
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