In recent months, health officials around the state began preparing for the possibility of a “twin-demic,” a situation in which the state’s healthcare system could be severely stressed while dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic in addition to a potential spike in flu cases.
While the coronavirus continues to take its toll on New Jersey, it seems the Garden State will likely be spared the much-feared twin-demic, with experts who spoke with NJ Advance Media now predicting this year’s flu season to be an exceptionally mild one.
“The defenses that we employ for preventing the spread of coronavirus, would also work very well to prevent the spread of the flu,” said Dr. Sandra Adams, professor of biology at Montclair State University and expert on molecular virology. “So, I think the pandemic could in fact be responsible for a lower number of flu cases this season.”
Social distancing, mask-wearing and frequent hand-washing, which have become the status quo for those looking to effectively prevent the spread of the coronavirus, also go a long way in preventing the spread of influenza and other communicable diseases.
“It feels like COVID-19 came in and just kicked every other virus to the side and said ‘we’re in town’,” said Dr. Christopher Freer, chairman of emergency medicine for Saint Barnabas and system director of RWJBarnabas Health Emergency Services. “It’s not like you’re seeing a variety of stomach viruses or flu or other ILIs [influenza-like illnesses]. It seems like if they have symptoms, that it seems to be COVID.”
While patients experiencing symptoms are given a point-of-care test that tests for both COVID-19 and the flu, Freer hasn’t seen “any flu A or flu B coming back, and we’re seeing a lot of COVID-19 coming back positive.”
While point-of-care testing is a necessary step in diagnosing and treating his patients, Freer has treated enough coronavirus patients by this point to be able to tell with relative certainty whether a person suffering from influenza-like symptoms actually has COVID-19 just by looking at them.
“I don’t know how to describe it,” said Freer when asked to articulate the difference in appearance between a flu victim and coronavirus victim. “It’s like a sense you have of an illness when you’ve seen it so many times. … You see someone come in with a fever and body aches, and they have a glassy look, a certain look in their eyes like the one I’ve seen every winter.
“With COVID, it’s not the same. You see more of a fatigued, sort of washed-out look.”
While everyday citizens continue to take preventative measures against COVID-19, Freer believes that a change in the way that medical professionals go about their daily routines has also helped prevent a surge in flu cases.
“I don’t think you would have seen everyone in an emergency department wearing the masks like you do today,” said Freer on the precautions that hospital workers are taking. “We’ve always been good with hand-washing, but to see a doctor, a nurse, a clinical tech walking in with a mask and eye protection. I’ve been practicing for over 20 years, and I’ve never seen anything as consistent as everyone following a rule like that.
“It’s usually one patient that might have a transmitted disease out of 100 in the emergency department, but now every patient you go into, you’re taking those precautions.”
According to the experts, another factor helping to prevent the spread of the flu this year is the simple fact that more people are getting their flu vaccines this year than did last year.
“There are more people who are getting the flu shot,” said Adams. “And it makes sense. There’s no reason to battle two respiratory illnesses, and the flu shot can be a way of preventing that one.”
As of the week ending Nov. 28, the Center for Disease Control reports that an estimated 45.3 million adult flu vaccinations have been administered in pharmacies, compared to 31.1 million at this point last year.
However, the CDC does mention that it is not yet clear if the increase in the number of adults getting flu vaccination in pharmacies represents an actual increase in the total number of adults getting vaccinated this season, as some have suggested the increase is due to people’s desire to avoid an actual doctor’s office for fear of contracting COVID-19.
“This year more than any year, it seems that the patients are coming in and they’ve already gotten their flu shot,” said Freer. “I cover 11 emergency departments, and I talk daily with the directors, and they’re not reporting any flu cases.”
In fact, as of the week ending Dec. 12, the CDC has only reported one pediatric death related to influenza for the 2020-21 flu season.
The top health official in New Jersey, as well as NIAID director Dr. Anthony Fauci, both advised residents around the state to get a flu vaccine and to do so earlier rather than later. It can not be certain whether or not New Jerseyans got their flu shots because of advice from health officials, though a survey of over 1,000 Americans nationwide was conducted by the NORC at the University of Chicago in early November that may shed some insight on the subject.
The study found that 35% of respondents were more likely to get a flu vaccine this year because of the pandemic. Conversely and perhaps worrisomely, 35% of respondents also stated that they do not plan to get a flu vaccine this year, a lower number than the 41% who stated that they would not get a flu shot in a 2018 survey conducted by the same company.
Years from now, the outbreak and impact of the COVID-19 pandemic will be the defining theme of 2020, in medical circles and practically everywhere else. One silver lining, and indeed an extremely slim one, is the fact that this year’s flu season will likely not take a similar toll to last season’s.
“I want to go out on a little bit of a limb and say I don’t think this is going to be a bad flu season,” said Freer.
On a larger scale, the CDC reports that influenza-like illness activity remained at a minimal level in 49 states this week, though it is noted that ILI activity levels may be impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic and should be interpreted with caution.
Despite the steadily low flu numbers in conjunction with the anticipated arrival and distribution of the coronavirus vaccine, Freer implores citizens to continue to practice social distancing and other preventative measures.
“I think people just need to keep it up for a few more months to get through this,” said Freer in a much more serious tone. “The vaccine is the light at the end of the tunnel. And we can’t fatigue and get frustrated.
“We’ve got to get through the winter. And there is a light at the end of the tunnel coming.”
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Casey Roland may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.