Infectious Disease Experts Warn of Early Start to Flu Season and a Fall COVID Surge

UCHealth Longs Peak Hospital Pharmacy operations manager Linda Gordon prepares the hospital’s first doses of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine on Thursday morning. The health system started distributing the vaccine to health care workers this week. Photo by Kelly Tracer, UCHealth.

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Coloradans encouraged to get flu shots and COVID boosters simultaneously as soon as possible

Infectious disease experts say flu season in the United States is expected to start early this year. The severity of illness could also be stronger due to lower flu numbers seen during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“This year has the potential to be a bad flu year. A lot of the measures used during the COVID-19 pandemic such as masking and limiting gatherings that helped limit the spread of flu are no longer in place. We also have less immunity to flu since we haven’t had the same exposures we normally have from year to year,” said Dr. Michelle Barron, UCHealth’s senior medical director for infection prevention and control.

Predictions for the upcoming flu season are based on modeling and trends seen in the southern hemisphere. In Australia, flu season typically occurs from May through September. However, this year’s flu season began about a month earlier, in mid-April, and peaked months ahead of what is typically seen. Since mid-April, the weekly number of confirmed flu cases exceeded a five year average in the region.

In comparison, flu season in the United States typically begins around Thanksgiving and peaks in December or January. This year’s outlook shows flu season could begin in late October or early November.

“It will take about two weeks to get full protection from the vaccine, so I would recommend getting your flu shot as soon as it becomes available so you can ensure you are adequately protected,” said Dr. Barron.

Dr. Michelle Barron compares the numbers we’re seeing in Australia to that of what we saw during 2019-2020 flu season—a flu season that was considered severe. Overall, during the 2019-2020 flu season there were more than 3,500 hospitalizations in Colorado —the third highest end-of-season count in Colorado in the last five flu seasons.

“An infection with the flu can sometimes lead to hospitalization and death. A flu shot can decrease that potential. We have seen the impact that COVID-19 hospitalizations had on our health system, and decreasing the need for hospitalization for flu is something we should strive for,” Dr. Barron said.

Pre-pandemic, UCHealth had surge capacity planning already in place. However, since June, clinical teams have started activating contingency plans for the upcoming fall and winter season. These contingency plans involve stocking up on antivirals and antibiotics and making sure UCHealth hospitals have extra personal protective equipment (PPE).

COVID-19 booster shots will soon be available

COVID-19 and influenza are both contagious respiratory viruses, however they’re different viruses. That’s why Coloradans are encouraged to get the new omicron-specific COVID-19 booster shot and the flu shot, simultaneously.

“It is safe to get a COVID-19 vaccine and any other vaccine, including the flu shot, at the same time. Your body recognizes each vaccine separately and does not cause you any harm but does give you protection against both simultaneously. Think of it as training your immune system in a similar manner to basic training in the military. You may learn to use a weapon and also learn physical combat. They are related but separate types of training meant for your protection,” said Dr. Barron.

Both COVID-19 and the flu virus can look very similar. They share the same symptoms of fever, chills, body aches, runny nose, headache and fatigue. There are potential treatments for both COVID-19 and the flu, however, they’re different treatments. If you are symptomatic, it is important to get tested to decipher which virus you have and what treatment methods are appropriate.

In addition to getting vaccinated for the flu and COVID-19, Dr. Barron encourages all Coloradans to get up-to-date on other immunizations as well including polio, shingles, and pneumonia.

UCHealth is an innovative, nonprofit health system that delivers the highest quality medical care with an excellent patient experience. UCHealth includes 28,000 employees, 12 acute-care full-service hospitals and hundreds of physicians across Colorado, southern Wyoming and western Nebraska. With University of Colorado Hospital on the CU Anschutz Medical Campus as its academic anchor and the only adult academic medical center in the region, UCHealth is dedicated to providing unmatched patient care in the Rocky Mountain West. Offering more than 150 clinic locations, UCHealth pushes the boundaries of medicine, providing advanced treatments and clinical trials and improving health through innovation.