With so much attention focused on the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s important to remember that this is the time of year to consider another infectious threat: influenza. While flu viruses can circulate year-round, case numbers tend to begin climbing in October, peaking somewhere between December and February.
Penn Today checked in with Vanessa Stoloff from the Student Health, Ashlee Halbritter from Campus Health, and Kristin Christensen from the Perelman School of Medicine to learn more about what to expect from this year’s flu season, the best prevention strategies, and how the COVID-19 pandemic may be playing a role, for better or worse.
This year’s flu season is likely to be harsher than the last
Last week the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned that the United States may be in for a severe flu season ahead. And Penn experts believe we’re unlikely to escape with as mild a season as last year. “This year will likely see the return of a typical flu season as many of the other common respiratory illnesses are already returning,” says Stoloff.
Yet it’s also possible that ongoing COVID-19 prevention strategies will keep this year’s wave of flu in check, says Christensen. “We’re hoping for that lighter scenario.” But the three experts note that, due to the low number of flu cases last year, people built less natural immunity, and thus their immune systems might not be primed to fight off a bout with the virus. “It’s important that we all follow the current public health guidance and get our flu shot,” Halbritter says.
That mask you’re wearing to prevent COVID will also help keep the flu at bay
Masking, physical distancing, washing hands often, and socializing outdoors have been shown to drive down the risk of transmitting COVID-19. And that’s true for the flu as well. “We have learned that these behaviors have proven to limit the spread of most respiratory illnesses,” Stoloff notes. Continuing to practice these measures through flu season, in addition to getting a flu shot, will minimize your risk of getting sick.
It’s fine to get your flu shot at the same time as a COVID jab
When clinics first began administering COVID-19 vaccines, patients were advised to separate the shot from any other vaccine by two weeks. But times have changed. “We have found with experience that you can get it along with other vaccines and your immune system will still respond well,” says Christensen.
What patients should consider, however, is that getting more than one vaccine at a time could compound the generally mild side effects—headache, fatigue, a low-grade fever—that can accompany both shots. So for those people seeking a COVID booster or initial shot at the same time as their flu shot, the choice is theirs. “People are making their own decision based on what is more convenient for them,” Christensen says.
Penn worked efficiently to inoculate the campus community against influenza
With the flu vaccine required for all students this year, and strongly recommended for faculty, staff, and postdocs, many took advantage of a chance to get their flu shot right on campus. The annual Flu Clinic was held last week in a new location, Gimbel Gym in the Pottruck Health and Fitness Center, to allow space to serve more people than in previous years. At this year’s clinic, 14,000 members of the Penn community received their flu vaccine, a mix of four strains known to be circulating and predicted to be the most prevalent in North America this fall and winter. The operation offered a quick and convenient chance to take a big step toward flu prevention. "Because of the larger space, the turnaround time was consistently around four to six minutes from arrival to exiting,” says Halbritter.
Health care providers are actively preparing to protect their patients
Even while hoping for a quiet flu season, clinicians are preparing for a surge in respiratory infections this fall and winter. “We’ve discussed shifting more of our appointments to telemedicine rather than in person,” says Christensen. “We want to provide our consultative ability to patients who are sick, but we also want to protect patients who are coming in for well checks.”
Flu and COVID-19 illnesses can overlap in their symptoms. Patients presenting with flu-like symptoms are now typically given COVID-19 tests as a matter of course, but Christensen says as flu season ramps up, they may also be screened for the influenza virus or other respiratory illnesses.
“The bottom line is we are preparing for a surge, and are working to stay nimble to take care of our patients,” she says.
Kristin Christensen is a clinical associate professor of medicine at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania and regional medical director of Penn Primary Care.
Ashlee Halbritter is director of Campus Health at Penn.
Vanessa Stoloff is medical director of Penn’s Student Health Service.