It may seem a bit like the boy who cried wolf, but public health officials are once again urging the public to be concerned about a “twindemic” of COVID-19 and flu this coming winter.
The reason: A combination of a tough flu season in the southern hemisphere, the end of pandemic social distancing and masking behaviors, and the potential for another SARS-CoV-2 variant, experts say.
“We should be worried,” Richard Webby, Ph.D., an infectious disease specialist at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital told NPR about this year’s upcoming flu season. “I don’t necessarily think it’s run-for-the-hills worried. But we need to be worried.”
Health reporters may want to tune into the CDC’s annual flu briefing on Tuesday, Oct. 4 (This year it will be online), where two CDC and three physician experts will answer the media’s questions about the flu. Visit this webpage to register.
A severe flu season is notoriously difficult to predict because the influenza virus mutates, but the southern hemisphere just wrapped up the most severe flu season since the pandemic began, suggesting the possibility that a long-feared “twindemic” of both flu and COVID-19 cases could emerge after two years of historically mild flu seasons.
Generally, scientists look to what has happened in the southern hemisphere (it is winter in the southern hemisphere when it is summer in the northern hemisphere) to foretell what may happen in Europe and the Americas during the winter season.
Meanwhile, there are reports from northern Europe that new COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations are rising again, and scientists are closely watching whether a new variant of SARS-CoV-2 may sweep the globe as it did last winter. Generally, the U.S. has been a few months behind Europe in the rise of new COVID-19 cases.
If the “twindemic” occurs this winter, it would further strain the U.S. health system which is already under duress from two and half years of COVID-19 response.
“Overall,” Helen Chu, Ph.D., M.P.H., a physician and flu expert at the University of Washington told the Atlantic, “we are not well prepared.”
Don’t those words sound familiar to all of us in the health care journalism field?
To aid you with your reporting, check out this tip sheet for reporting on the flu, updated for the 2022-23 winter season.