By Alexandra Becker
As schools across Greater Houston have settled into a new year and hints of cooler breezes signal the start of fall, pediatricians and primary care physicians are bracing themselves for the beginning of flu season. This year, as hospitals continue to navigate the devastating effects of the last 18 months while treating sequential waves of unvaccinated COVID-19 patients, infectious disease experts are especially worried about a potential double pandemic unfolding—where COVID-19 and seasonal influenza simultaneously surge throughout communities.
That worst-case scenario, however, is largely preventable.
“We said that last year was the most important year ever to get your flu vaccine because we didn’t want another respiratory virus to overwhelm our health systems when COVID-19 was already doing that,” said Dr. Jamie McCarthy, Executive Vice President and Chief Physician Executive for Memorial Hermann Health System. “That public health messaging was effective—an increased portion of our population got their flu shot—and those vaccines, combined with other preventative measures we were all practicing at the time, were wildly successful at keeping the flu at bay.”
This year looks a little different, however, with fewer people wearing masks in public or practicing social distancing. Most schools are back to in-person learning, and in communities throughout Greater Houston, many individuals have resumed their normal lives. Even more, according to data from the National Respiratory and Enteric Surveillance System, common respiratory viruses such as respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) increased in activity outside their typical season this year, with major outbreaks over the summer, which suggests an especially active transmission period in the coming months.
“While we cannot yet predict what this year’s flu season will look like, the simple fact that so many people are no longer practicing the recommended safety measures for COVID-19, all of which also combat the flu, is concerning to public health experts everywhere,” McCarthy said.
That worry is compounded by the fact that the highly contagious delta variant is creating a surge in the region’s hospitals, with ICU beds full and wait times at Emergency Centers at an all-time high.
“Hospitals throughout our area are already at capacity, and the last thing we need is another respiratory virus making people sick,” McCarthy said. “The flu can be very serious, and each year we see thousands of patients who need to be hospitalized due to complications from it, especially the very young, the elderly, and anyone with underlying health conditions. Right now, we wouldn’t necessarily have a bed for them if they needed it, so we want everyone to do what they can to protect themselves.”
McCarthy’s call to arms is simple: get your annual flu shot.
“The flu shot is safe and recommended for everyone ages 6 months and older, so we highly encourage families to protect themselves from the flu and get vaccinated as soon as possible this year,” said Dr. Chinonyerem Pace, a pediatrician with Memorial Hermann Medical Group (MHMG). “Children under the age of 12 are not yet eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine, making the flu vaccine that much more important.”
Pace echoed every leading health organization in the U.S., adding that anyone who is medically eligible should also get vaccinated against COVID-19 if they have not already done so.
“By getting the COVID-19 vaccine, you are not only protecting yourself, but you are protecting children in your family or your community who are too young to get vaccinated,” Pace said. “This current surge is a result of unvaccinated individuals falling sick from the delta variant—although we are definitely seeing some breakthrough cases, the vaccine is protecting people from hospitalization and death—so the crisis we are in now can be solved if everyone who is eligible got vaccinated.”
McCarthy also urged the public not to discount the power of masks and social distancing, noting that those practices undoubtedly contributed to the unusually low flu numbers last season.
“Masks work, period—especially for situations that we might consider high-risk for airborne virus transmission, such as air travel or visiting crowded, indoor spaces,” McCarthy said.
McCarthy also verified that it is safe to get both the COVID-19 vaccine and flu vaccine at the same time, for anyone looking to be a true hero in their community.
“If you want to do the right thing and help others, this is all you need to do,” McCarthy said. “Get vaccinated—it is safe, it is easy, you can access it at little to no cost, and you will undoubtedly play a part in saving lives.”