Wash your hands, wear a mask, stay socially distant — and get a flu shot. This is the message health officials are preaching as we head into cooler months when we’ll all be spending more time indoors.
The fall and winter months worry health officials because SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID 19, is more easily transmissible indoors and it survives longer in cooler temperatures. The scenario that health officials want to avoid is a simultaneous surge in flu and COVID-19 cases, which would overwhelm hospitals.
Dr. Helen Chu is an associate professor at the University of Washington School of Medicine. She also helps lead the Seattle Flu Study, which spotted a case of COVID-19 that confirmed community transmission back in January. Chu says for the best protection, get the shot now.
“September, October is really when you want it because it takes two weeks for it to start working after you get the shot for it to become effective to protect you from the flu," Chu said. "So you really need to get it in before the beginning of flu season, which tends to be December, because sometimes it starts as early as November.”
The United States generally looks to the Southern Hemisphere as a predictor of how severe of a flu season to expect. But Chu says this year, places such as New Zealand and Australia didn’t have much of a flu season. Chu says that’s because, unlike the United States, those countries have national mask-wearing policies in place, which protect people from many viruses, including COVID-19.
Since wearing masks is politicized in the United States, Chu predicts the U.S. will have a flu season.
“We're going to see large flu outbreaks in certain parts of the country and nothing in other parts. But it's going to be completely unpredictable what those parts are," Chu said. "I think we can sort of guess what those parts would be, but there's so much travel. That I don't know that we can say.”
Meanwhile, if you live in Seattle, the Seattle Household Flu Study is recruiting new households for the 2020-21 flu season. Households made up of three or more people, with at least one child, may be eligible to participate. Participants keep a weekly survey of how they are feeling. If they feel sick, they’ll send in nasal swabs that will be tested for flu, COVID-19 and other viruses. The study begins Oct. 1.