We hear about flu season every year. Many of us heed these annual warnings, dutifully making time for our flu shots.
This year, though, you may be questioning how worried you need to be about catching and spreading the influenza virus. Like many things last year, the 2020-2021 flu season was unprecedented — almost nonexistent, especially compared with what flu seasons usually look like.
"We benefited from historically low flu activity last year. We have masks and social distancing to thank for that," says Dr. Wesley Long, director of diagnostic microbiology at Houston Methodist.
But there's been plenty of speculation that flu activity may look more "normal" this season. Sure, the pandemic and its most necessary precautions are still a part of our lives, but students are back in classrooms, employees are back at work and mask-wearing and social distancing are less frequent now than they were at this time last year.
Dr. Long warns about letting last year's quiet flu season trick you into feeling complacent about getting your shot this year.
"We're already starting to see some concerning trends regarding flu positivity rates and flu vaccination rates nationwide," says Dr. Long. "The good news, though, is that it's early in the flu season and there's still time to protect ourselves by encouraging our friends and family to get their shots."
What can we expect from the 2021-2022 flu season?
It's early, but here's what we know already:
- Although still generally low across the nation, flu activity is increasing.
- Some states are seeing significantly higher flu positivity rates than others.
- A common subtype (H3N2), covered by the vaccine, has emerged.
- Flu outbreaks in young adults are being reported, the most recent example being among students at University of Michigan-Ann Arbor.
- Flu vaccination rates are below average for children and pregnant women.
"The current flu positivity data from the CDC are already lining up with 2019-2020 flu season trendlines, suggesting that it might not be a quiet flu season for us again," says Dr. Long.
What was the 2019-2020 flu season like? The CDC estimates that it resulted in 410,000 hospitalizations, 18 million medical visits and 24,000 deaths.
One big concern is how taxed health care systems would become if influenza and COVID-19 cause significant hospitalizations at the same time. So far, during the COVID-19 pandemic, that bullet has been dodged.
"When we look at current flu vaccination rates, I'd say there's a healthy amount of concern about how seriously the community is taking flu season this year," says Dr. Long.
According to the CDC's weekly national dashboard, flu vaccination coverage is:
- 6% lower for all children
- 10% lower for non-Hispanic Black children
- 8% lower for non-Hispanic White children
- 17% lower for pregnant women
"This is particularly concerning since pregnant women and young children are at risk of developing serious flu-related complications," says Dr. Long.
And while it's projected that almost 60% of adults intend to get a flu shot, only about 40% have actually done so thus far.
"Ideally, the majority of people would be vaccinated by now since flu season is underway and outbreaks are already being reported," says Dr. Long. "But, it's never too late to benefit from getting a flu shot since flu season can linger into late April or May. Make a plan to get your influenza vaccine now if you haven't already."
(Pro tip: Flu shots are widely available at pharmacy and retail stores, with some even offering store credit to those who get vaccinated. And, yes, you can get your flu shot at the same time as your first, second or third dose of COVID-19 vaccine).
Why everyone 6 months and older should get an annual flu vaccine
Many people shrug off the flu and getting a flu shot, thinking that they're in decent health or too young to worry about it.
But think again.
If you have heart disease or risk factors for heart disease — which include high blood pressure and high cholesterol — coming down with the flu can substantially increase your risk of a serious cardiac event. What's more, almost half of people older than 20 have elevated or high blood pressure, and many may not even know it.
"Getting a flu shot is the best way to protect yourself from the flu, but it's also about more than that," says Dr. Long. "Widespread flu vaccination helps protect those who can't get vaccinated themselves, like babies, or those who are vaccinated but are still at higher risk for developing complications of the flu, like the immune-compromised and the elderly."
In the 2019-2020 flu season, it's estimated that flu vaccination prevented 7.5 million illnesses, 105,000 hospitalizations and 6,300 deaths.