Fauci says public health measures to curb coronavirus spread could dampen flu season

Dr Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases, testifies during a Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S.

Kevin Dietsch | Reuters

Public health measures like wearing a mask and avoiding close contact with others could help prevent the forthcoming influenza season from complicating the nation’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, White House health advisor Dr. Anthony Fauci said Thursday. 

The United States has been the country “most severely hit” by the coronavirus with more than 7 million Covid-19 cases and 205,000 deaths as of Wednesday, Fauci said during a briefing about the importance of influenza and pneumococcal disease prevention during the pandemic.

“Truly a transforming pandemic of historic nature, and we’re not through with it yet,” said Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

Health officials will soon face a “diagnostic challenge” as the coronavirus overlaps with the Northern Hemisphere’s flu season, which the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says typically peaks between December and February, since the symptoms of both diseases are very similar, he warned. 

Those shared symptoms include fever, coughing, shortness of breath, sore throat, fatigue, runny or stuffy nose, headaches, muscle pains or body aches, and potentially vomiting and diarrhea. 

“There’s considerable concern as we enter the fall and the winter months and into the flu season that we’ll have that dreaded overlap of two respiratory diseases, namely influenza and Covid-19,” he said. 

The flu can kill between 12,000 and 61,000 people and hospitalize up to 810,000 people in the U.S. every year, Fauci said. 

Meanwhile, Dr. William Schaffner, medical director of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases, said that only 59% of people plan to get vaccinated against the flu this season, citing a recent study from the foundation. Less than half of U.S. adults were inoculated against the disease last year, he said. 

The good news: Steps to prevent the spread of the coronavirus are also effective in curbing the spread of the flu, such as wearing face coverings, avoiding crowds, frequent hand washing and disinfecting surfaces. 

“Steps to fight the flu and Covid-19 overlap greatly,” Fauci said Thursday. “We don’t want those two diseases together.” 

A CDC study published in mid-September found that the flu season in the Southern Hemisphere between April and July was far more subdued compared with previous years. Data from Australia, Chile and South Africa found that only 0.06% of more than 83,000 collected specimens returned positive, far lower than the near 14% rate in previous years. 

“They had a very, very light flu season,” Fauci said, adding that the U.S. could “have the same thing” if people are vaccinated and practice public health measures. 

The study also found that the flu declined sharply within the two weeks earlier this year when many states shuttered schools and encouraged social distancing and mask wearing. However, researchers noted in the study that some of that decline could be because people stopped seeking routine health services. 

Commonly suggested public health measures to curb Covid-19’s spread along with a flu vaccine “could substantially reduce influenza incidence and impact” this upcoming season, the researchers said. 

Fauci has warned this week that the U.S. is “not in a good place” as colder months loom and the number of newly reported coronavirus cases continues to swell beyond 40,000 people every day. The country should aim for daily new cases below 10,000, not around 40,000 as it currently stands, he said.

“Get yourself and your family vaccinated,” Fauci said. “I was vaccinated two days ago. I feel great, I’m glad I did it. Hopefully it will protect me and my family.” 

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