How Will COVID-19 Affect the 2020 – 2021 Flu Season?

Dana Hawkinson, medical director of infection prevention at The University of Kansas Medical Center, says researchers look at flu activity in the southern hemisphere to understand more about flu season here. Some countries, like Australia and South Africa, he says, had lower rates of flu in 2020 than in previous years, which doctors hope translates to the United States.

But the lower influenza rates may be due to public health measures related to COVID-19, making it even more crucial we follow public guidelines that help prevent its spread.

“We are hoping that the public health guidance and adherence to principles such as physical distancing, not meeting in large groups, and hand hygiene will have a positive impact on flu rates — that we’d have lower amounts of influenza compared to previous flu seasons,” he says.

Experts still aren’t sure which strains will dominate this year’s flu season, but Hawkinson says the vaccine usually offers some degree of protection against four different flu viruses (a.k.a. quadrivalent): influenza A(H1N1) virus, influenza A(H3N2) virus, and two influenza B viruses. “Typically we do see both A and B somewhat, but it depends on the time of year. Most of the time we have A circulating earlier, and then later on in the season they’re a B strain,” he says.

What symptoms should I watch out for?

Even if your case doesn’t require a doctor’s visit, having the flu is no picnic. According to the CDC, flu symptoms include:

Pierre says many of these symptoms overlap with COVID-19 symptoms, so it’s important to seek medical advice if you’re ill with any of them. One symptom distinct to COVID-19, Pierre says, is the loss of taste and/or smell, which usually doesn’t occur with influenza.

You can’t know for sure that you have the flu or COVID-19 unless you take a lab test. Vyas says many health care providers, including Cleveland Clinic offer telehealth appointments to screen patients before in-person testing, so check with your clinic about available options.

Won’t the flu shot prevent me from getting it?

Each year researchers in the U.S. formulate a vaccine meant to protect against the four different flu virus strains they think will be the most common during the upcoming season. But getting the vaccine doesn’t guarantee you won’t get the flu. After researchers identify the strains most likely to cause trouble each year, viruses can mutate, meaning strains that researchers didn’t anticipate can become prevalent. Before you ask, yes: You should still get a flu shot. In addition to preventing the flu, Pierre says the vaccine can also shorten the duration of the sickness.

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