CoAdvantage- Is the United States potentially facing a “twindemic” of both a bad flu season and a COVID-19 surge as we head into the 2021-2022 season? We asked the same question last year, and a twindemic didn’t come even close to happening. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC), a typical flu season will have 200,000 lab-confirmed cases of the flu. The 2020-2021 flu season, however, saw a mere 2,000 lab-confirmed cases.
That’s a hopeful sign. However, experts are concerned history won’t repeat, so it’s worth revisiting the question.
For one thing, the underlying reasons for fewer flu cases – widespread masking, social distancing, telework and virtual education – are already less common. The population has begun to get vaccinated against COVID-19 in large numbers; 62.3% of the American population has had at least one dose of a vaccine as of the end of summer. That, combined with pandemic fatigue, is leading to fewer mitigating behaviors. That has also, not incidentally, spurred a fourth wave of COVID-19 infections over the summer (mostly among the unvaccinated) the seriousness of which has rivalled previous waves.
That also means people will likely face more exposure to the flu this year. The lack of exposure last year could make them even more susceptible than normal to the flu. Eili Klein, PhD, an associate professor of emergency medicine at Johns Hopkins Medicine in Baltimore, says:
“Because there was little flu virus activity last season, adult immunity (especially among those who were not vaccinated last season) will now depend on exposure to viruses two or more seasons earlier. Given there will be a greater number of susceptible people coupled with kids going back to school, it could mean that the flu may peak earlier this year.”
There is at least one positive indicator, though: “Normally we look to Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa during their winter ― which is our summer ― to get some idea of what is over the horizon for the Northern Hemisphere,” Andrew T. Pavia, MD, chief of the Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases at the University of Utah, in Salt Lake City, Utah, told WebMD. “[However] flu activity in Australia has been very modest this year.”
So, what can employers do to handle a possibly worse flu season than normal on top of a continuing pandemic?
1: Encourage employees to get vaccinated. According to a recently published Yale University study, COVID-19 vaccines are 60% effective against symptomatic disease and 93% effective against hospitalization after a full two doses. However, it’s not just COVID-19. The flu shot can also help reduce the likelihood and serious of the flu. Consider policies that encourage employees to get vaccinated against both, e.g., a paid hour off to get it. For more information about what employers can – and can’t – require, see our article, “Q&A: Employers and COVID-19 Vaccines in the Workplace.”
2: Encourage sick employees to stay home. Further, revisit sick leave policies to ensure sick workers are logistically able to stay home. Continue to offer remote working options, if feasible.
3: Continue to employ reasonable safety measures. Tactics that mitigate against viral transmission can protect against both the flu and COVID-19. These options include practicing good hand-washing hygiene, wearing masks where appropriate, social distancing, testing, and so on. We’ve also written about other best practices for dealing with both flu and COVID-19 previously.
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