Typically, the winter months bring the peak of flu season. As cases of COVID-19 have soared in the U.S. over the past few weeks, however, cases of the flu have remained extremely low.
Flu season typically peaks between December and February each year. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that the flu causes up to 45 million illnesses, up to 810,000 hospitalizations and up to 61,000 deaths each year. But this flu season, there have been just 925 cases of the flu around the U.S so far.
“Though caused by a different virus from the one that causes COVID-19, the flu is also a respiratory viral disease, so everything we are doing to slow transmission of COVID-19, such as wearing face masks, frequent handwashing and physical distancing, should also reduce transmission of flu,” says Eili Klein, Ph.D., associate professor of emergency medicine at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.
More people also received the flu vaccine this season compared with last season, many schools and businesses are holding virtual classes or meetings instead of in-person, and fewer people have been traveling — all of which could be keeping flu cases down.
“We commonly see flu spread in communities, schools, businesses and through travel each year, so these changes are likely keeping the flu away,” says Lisa Maragakis, M.D., M.P.H., senior director of infection prevention for the Johns Hopkins Health System and associate professor of medicine at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.
Klein believes that even if this flu season turns out to be less severe than usual, it could affect the severity of the next flu season. “Because of the current restrictions and precautions everyone is taking this season, far fewer people will be infected or exposed to the flu virus, and therefore won’t become immune to certain strains of the virus,” he says. “So the number of people who may have more severe infections next year is likely to be greater because immunity will be lower.”
Flu season typically runs through May, so there’s still a chance that flu cases will pick up in the next few months. Also, one strain of flu — influenza B — tends to circulate later in the season.
Johns Hopkins Medicine experts recommend continuing prevention methods to protect against the flu and COVID-19 as well as getting the flu vaccine. “The flu vaccine takes about two weeks for antibodies to develop and begin protecting you from the illness, so getting the flu vaccine any time through mid-April will still be helpful in preventing the flu,” Maragakis says. She advises that anyone who hasn’t already gotten their flu vaccination should do so as soon as possible, but she notes that 14 days must elapse between getting the COVID-19 vaccination and any other vaccinations, including the flu vaccine.
Maragakis and Klein are available for interviews on this year’s flu season and the potential effects on next year’s flu season.
Many older adults are becoming increasingly isolated during the pandemic as people continue to physically distance. Families may be afraid of getting loved ones sick, seniors may sequester themselves over fear of contracting the virus or shared living facilities may have visiting restrictions. All of this contributes to loneliness, which can ultimately lead to a mental health crisis.
A mental health crisis in an older adult could be depression, anxiety or even symptoms of psychosis or dementia. Treatment of older adults with a mental health crisis can involve psychotherapy, medication (depending on the circumstances), engaging family to help facilitate care, improving the patient’s tech literacy, and navigating barriers to care or other case management obstacles. Johns Hopkins Medicine physicians say family and friends can play a significant role in helping loved ones manage their care while also being on the lookout for potential signs of struggle.
“We need families to understand that physical distancing isn’t the only priority, and that maintaining social connectedness during this time is important,” says Chiadi Onyike, M.B.B.S., M.D., associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. “It’s about finding the balance — visiting in a way that is both safe for and helpful to their older family member.”
The family, Onyike says, may not be aware that their relative feels isolated or even know whether there’s been a recent connection with a doctor. He encourages people to ask their relatives how they are doing and, if possible, designate a tech-savvy family member to set up the older adult with a tablet or laptop, help them obtain an internet connection and show them how to meet family, friends and medical providers virtually.
Onyike is available for interviews.
For many people, the start of January means creating resolutions for the New Year. Often those goals are focused on losing weight, getting fit or adding more exercise to daily routines.
“It’s certainly possible to achieve your fitness goals even during the COVID-19 pandemic, but it’s important to take into consideration safety precautions to prevent COVID-19,” says Lisa Maragakis, M.D., M.P.H., senior director of infection prevention for the Johns Hopkins Health System and associate professor of medicine at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.
Johns Hopkins Medicine experts say exercising outdoors or at your home is safest. “Gyms and fitness centers have been shown to be places where COVID-19 can spread, so it’s best to go only in cases in which exercise is not possible in less-risky locations,” Maragakis says.
If you decide to go to the gym or a fitness center, Maragakis suggests selecting a location that requires staff and attendees to wear a mask that covers their mouth and nose at all times. She also advises to stay at least 6 feet away from others and wash your hands with soap and water for 20 seconds or use hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol, particularly before and after touching equipment and when you have finished your workout. Going to the gym during off-peak hours is also a better option to avoid crowds. Maragakis adds that high-intensity exercises, such as running, should only be done outside or on workout equipment at home since they require more rapid or intense breathing, which could transmit viruses more easily.
Maragakis says anyone who has symptoms of COVID-19 or who has recently been tested for COVID-19 should self-quarantine and avoid going to any public areas.
Maragakis is available for interviews on working out safely amid the pandemic in the New Year.
For information from Johns Hopkins Medicine about the coronavirus pandemic, visit hopkinsmedicine.org/coronavirus. For information on the coronavirus from throughout the Johns Hopkins enterprise, including the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and The Johns Hopkins University, visit coronavirus.jhu.edu.