COVID-19 ISO Insights

How Will the Next Influenza Season Affect—and be Affected—by COVID-19?

May 18, 2020

By: David Geller, CPCU

Axios has reported on another COVID-19 consideration that could potentially grow more relevant as 2020 eventually winds down: flu season.

Axios notes that influenza typically circulates between November and April in the Northern Hemisphere, and that as a byproduct of COVID-19 social distancing, the 2019 flu season ended earlier than usual.

The impacts that influenza has on health in the U.S. is hardly trivial—according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), nearly 35.5 million U.S. residents were inflicted with influenza in the 2018-19 season, and this resulted in approximately 500,000 hospitalizations and over 34,000 deaths. Of note, nearly 57% of hospitalizations and 75% of fatalities were attributed to those 65 and older, per the CDC.

Due to the mutation of flu strains, per Axios, a new vaccine is developed each year. However, sometimes the vaccine might have a limited effect on protecting those who receive it. For example, this past February, the CDC released a preliminary report indicating that flu vaccines were reducing doctor’s visits in the 2019-20 season by around 45%--typically, per the CDC, this rate of effectiveness ranges from 40%-60%. Additionally, according to Axios, less than half of American adults get vaccinated.

There may be a few angles to consider when contemplating how the 2020-21 flu season will coalesce with COVID-19.

From a more positive perspective, if at least some semblance of social distancing measures persist throughout the duration of 2020, including the reduction or even elimination of handshaking, which, per USA Today, some infectious disease doctors attribute to the spreading of “dangerous germs”, then maybe this will limit the spread of influenza in the upcoming season.

There is also the consideration of vaccination rates for the upcoming season. A spokeswoman for one of the manufacturers of flu vaccines told AccuWeather that the company is anticipating higher demand of flu shots from more health-conscious citizens around the world, and are thus increasing their total production of flu vaccines by 8% from the 2019 season to the 2020 one. Nevertheless, Axios reports that “[s]ome experts are worried vaccine manufacturers may hit production limits that force them to choose between a new COVID-19 vaccine and existing vaccines for diseases like the flu.”

Additionally, a Wall Street Journal report points out that some parents are currently reluctant to take their children for scheduled vaccinations, and that “the immunization rate for all recommended childhood vaccines declined about 40% in the U.S. from February through mid-April.”

As a result, some pediatricians have expressed concern that these delays could lead to outbreaks of highly contagious diseases, such as measles, rotavirus, and whooping cough when social distancing restrictions are softened.

Also potentially relevant is the reported overlap of symptoms between influenza and COVID-19. In 2018-19, per the CDC, of 35.5 million U.S. residents that were sickened by influenza, about 16.5 million of them went to a healthcare provider for assistance. Given that the symptoms for COVID-19 and influenza are reportedly similar, will that proportion of healthcare visits grow among those with influenza, and further stress healthcare providers?

As society eventually hopes to pivot from flattening the curve to successfully eradicating COVID-19 through vaccination, it appears that this tricky dilemma may be another hurdle to overcome.