Updated October 4, 2021 - 6:11 am
It’s always tough to predict how severe a flu season will be, and this year is no different, with health experts seeing signs both good and bad.
Once again, there are fears of a “twindemic,” a bad flu season on top of the COVID-19 pandemic. Such fears didn’t come to pass last year, sparing an already overloaded hospital system the additional burden of abundant flu patients.
Last year, the flu season was practically nonexistent around the globe, including in Clark County, where there were just six flu deaths and 50 hospitalizations. In contrast, 54 deaths and almost 1,400 hospitalizations were reported the prior season, according to the Southern Nevada Health District.
There’s a downside to the reprieve, however. It may result in waning community immunity to the flu.
“One of the unique differences we’re seeing in 2021 is the fact that we didn’t have a preceding seasonal flu emergence or epidemic,” said Dr. David Weismiller, a family practitioner and professor at the Kirk Kerkorian School of Medicine at UNLV.
“People weren’t exposed last year,” he said. “So there’s a chance that their immune systems won’t be able to recognize the circulating strains this year, which could potentially mean that we may have more individuals who are readily infected.”
Health authorities believe that COVID-19 restrictions that closed schools and required masking contributed to the mild flu season. The easing of these restrictions this year, they say, makes it easier for the flu to spread.
“Last year, everyone was quarantined. Most people were indoors taking precautions,” said Dr. Gaurav Zirath, a family medicine practitioner with Southwest Medical. “And that’s what led to a milder season.
“However, this year, things are a little different. More people are out and about and vaccinated against COVID-19,” and some restrictions have been lifted, he said. “So we do expect some increase in the flu season relative to what we saw last year.”
Las Vegas No. 1 for flu activity
The Walgreens Flu Index, which measures weekly prescription data for flu antiviral medication, shows high incidence in certain regions of the U.S. compared to last season. However “overall flu activity is still lower compared to a normal flu season,” Amer Hakam, regional health care director at Walgreens, said in an email.
But Las Vegas currently leads metropolitan areas in the U.S. for incidence of flu, according to the Walgreens index, as it did at points during the last couple flu seasons. And Nevada leads the country among states, possibly reflecting their status as top tourist destinations as well as the easing of restrictions, Hakam said.
“While Las Vegas and Nevada have the highest incidences of flu, they still remain relatively lower than what we would see this time of year during a normal flu season,” he said.
Another reason for optimism: Public health officials closely watch the flu season in the Southern Hemisphere of the globe, where there is an earlier season that sometimes is later mirrored in the Northern Hemisphere. In other words, what happens in Australia can help to forecast what might happen in the U.S. And this year, like last year, was a very mild season in the Southern Hemisphere.
Without a clear crystal ball, and with COVID-19 not in full retreat, officials say it’s more important than ever for anyone 6 months and older to get an annual flu shot.
“I think we should be just as concerned as we were last year about having both COVID-19 and flu season infect a lot of people,” Zirath said.
September and October are the prime months for getting the flu shot — not too early, since protection can wane in six months, but before the holidays, when disease transmission typically increases.
“It’s just really important to get the vaccine at any point that you have access or opportunity, and especially before the holidays,” said JoAnn Rupiper, chief administrative nurse for the health district. “You know, that’s always my cue: ‘Oh, it’s Thanksgiving in a couple of weeks. I think I’ll get my flu shot.’ ”
Health officials are encouraging people to get a flu shot when they get a COVID-19 shot to be protected against both diseases.
Getting both shots also will help to avoid overwhelming area hospitals with patients, authorities say.
So far this season, flu hospitalizations have been minimal, with five in Clark County as of Thursday, said Amy Shogren with the Nevada Hospital Association.
Weismiller hopes it stays that way.
‘You can only take so much’
“For those of us in the health care system, particularly those who are dealing in the hospital day in and day out, the fatigue is becoming astronomical,” said Weismiller, who sees hospital patients as part of the School of Medicine’s medical practice.
“And this is not ‘woe is us.’ We signed up for this. But you can only take so much.”
The Southern Nevada Health District offers flu shots at its public health centers. Walk-in clients are accepted at the Health District’s 280 S. Decatur Blvd. immunization clinic. Appointments are required at its other centers. To make an appointment, call 702-759-0850. Flu vaccines can be administered at the same time as COVID-19 vaccines or other immunizations.
They also are widely available at area pharmacies.
Contact Mary Hynes at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0336. Follow @MaryHynes1 on Twitter.