Our response to the COVID-19 pandemic and the way it changed our behavior has impacted how and when people are getting sick with other viruses. Doctors have been treating more and more severe common colds, influenza and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) infections during the off season this past summer.
So, does that mean we will also have a bad cold and flu season in Washington this coming fall and winter?
Here are four things you need to know about preventing infections during the colder months.
1. This cold and flu season could be worse
Cold and flu cases decreased dramatically in 2020 and 2021 thanks to all that physical distancing and mask-wearing. But ever since COVID-19 restrictions have been lifted and people have been returning to their regular activities, cases of viral illnesses have increased.
“The pandemic-related decrease in cases led to fewer and fewer individuals in the community with immune protection against influenza and cold viruses,” explains Dr. Amanda Casto, an allergy and infectious disease specialist at UW Medicine.
Since this is our first cold and flu season without many COVID-19 restrictions, doctors don’t fully know what to expect but do think it could be more severe than normal because of the factors outlined above, Casto says.
And yes, it is possible to get infected with COVID-19 and a cold or the flu simultaneously.
“We’re not yet sure if having a second virus makes COVID-19 more severe or not. This is an area of active research,” Casto says.
2. It is possible you could get omicron again
“Individuals who have previously had COVID-19 could be reinfected with the omicron variant this fall/winter even if their previous infection was due to the omicron variant,” Casto says.
The longer it’s been since you were first infected, the more chance you have of getting reinfected. Your chances are also greater if you’re immunocompromised.
It’s important to keep this in mind because there could be a resurgence of omicron later this year, though it may not be as severe as the original surge.
3. Yes, it’s still important to get a flu shot
For the 2021-2022 flu season, around 49% of adult Washingtonians received their flu vaccine. That rate isn’t awful, but it could be better.
“Despite the potentially significant negative health impacts, many people think of the flu as a mild illness that will not significantly impact their health or the health of those around them. As a result, they don’t think it is important for them to get the flu shot,” Casto says.
The flu is the pandemic we lived with long before COVID-19. According to estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the flu caused hundreds of thousands of hospitalizations and tens of thousands of deaths annually between 2010 and 2020.
“Everyone 6 months of age or older should get an annual flu shot. The only exception is individuals who have a severe allergy (anaphylaxis) to the influenza vaccine or one of its components,” Casto explains.
4. You can get your COVID-19 booster and flu shot at the same time
If you’re due for the omicron booster (or your first booster or even your first or second COVID-19 vaccine), you can go ahead and get that vaccine at the same time you get your annual flu shot.
The new boosters are approved for everyone aged 12 and older and are bivalent, meaning they protect against the original strain of COVID-19 plus the newer omicron variant.
If you’ve recently gotten a different COVID-19 vaccine, you should wait a couple of months before getting the new booster, and if you’ve recently had COVID-19, you should wait two to three months.
Other than getting vaccinated, the best ways to prevent infection during the colder months are the tried-and-true things you’ve already been doing: Washing your hands regularly, wearing a mask in crowded areas and staying away from others if you do happen to get sick.