Flu returns while COVID-19 persists; DHS urges vaccines for both

By: - November 15, 2021 5:23 am

Photo by Thirdman | Pexels

After a one-year break thanks largely to public health measures, the flu is making a comeback in Wisconsin even as COVID-19 remains at large.

The best defense against both remains vaccination, said Tom Haupt, influenza surveillance coordinator and respiratory disease epidemiologist for the Wisconsin Department of Health Services (DHS) at a media briefing on Friday.

Through the second week of November, Wisconsin has recorded 29 confirmed cases of influenza, Haupt said. That is still well below the 109 cases recorded in the state for the same period in 2019, but it is a bump up from this time in 2020, when there were seven cases. “And it is on the rise,” Haupt said.

For the 2020-21 flu season, DHS recorded 100 cases statewide and 21 people hospitalized. The flu season normally peaks in late January to early February. 

“Last year there was really no flu season at all,” Haupt said. In the pre-pandemic 2019-2020 flu season, the state recorded 36,000 cases, with 4,500 people hospitalized, “which was a normal year.”

Nationally health officials have seen a flu spike especially on college and university campuses. Haupt said that hasn’t shown up in Wisconsin yet, and to avoid that, he urged college students in the state to get a flu shot.

Even as flu is increasing this year, COVID-19 infections remain high, according to DHS data, and what looked recently like a downward trend in the novel coronavirus has reversed. 

The weekly regional data report from DHS once again shows eight counties where the spread of disease is “critically high” as of Nov. 10 after having fallen to half that number in late October.

The average number of new daily cases over a seven-day period has risen to 2,649 as of Nov. 11, according to DHS. The seven-day average for deaths stands at 14 per day. 

Just over 55% of Wisconsin residents are fully vaccinated, meaning that they have had either two Pfizer or Moderna shots or one Johnson & Johnson shot, and just over 58% have begun the vaccination process, the most recent numbers posted by DHS show. 

With the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19 continuing to circulate widely along with the flu and other respiratory viruses, Haupt emphasized the importance of staying home from work or school when one is sick regardless of the illness to avoid spreading it. 

Symptoms for COVID-19, the flu and other respiratory viruses “are very, very similar,” he said, and can’t be used to make a specific diagnosis. “That’s why … if people are getting sick and they have to seek medical care, we’re really encouraging people to get tested not only for COVID but for the other viruses, especially influenza.”

Distinguishing which virus is responsible is also important because, unlike COVID-19, doctors can prescribe an anti-viral medication for the flu, he said. That can tamp down the infection and keep symptoms milder and shorter-lasting. “But the key is vaccination for both,” Haupt said.

About 26% of Wisconsin residents have gotten a flu vaccine so far this year, roughly 1.5 million people. That’s behind last year, when 34% had gotten a flu shot by mid-November, Haupt said, and also slightly behind 2019-2020, when 28% were vaccinated by this time. 

Public health officials aren’t sure why this year’s flu vaccines are lagging. Asked if the ongoing politicized controversy over COVID-19 shots could be tainting the public image of other vaccines, Haupt said that was “one possible theory.” Another is that people are assuming because of such low flu rates last year that the vaccine isn’t necessary this year, either, he said. 

For that reason, public health agencies are working to emphasize the importance of both vaccines. 

“Hospitals are still at very high capacity” due to COVID-19, Haupt said. “Some are full.” Children are now among the most commonly hospitalized patients with COVID-19, and vaccinations for children ages 5 to 11 have only recently become available. 

If influenza spikes among people who are not vaccinated for the flu, “it would be a devastating year,” he said. “That’s why it’s so important that you get vaccinated for yourself and to protect those people around you.”

Along with vaccination, the same measures to prevent COVID-19 — masking and physical distancing — also can help prevent a flu outbreak, Haupt said.

“We really are very concerned about the situation with the pediatric population,” Haupt said. “Anybody who has a child under 5 years old … the people around them have to take a breath, take a little bit of responsibility for themselves, to get vaccinated, and make sure that the people around those unvaccinated children actually get the vaccine both for COVID and for influenza.”

Haupt said that people who need a COVID-19 vaccine — whether a first, second or booster shot — and a flu vaccine along with their health care providers can decide whether they want to get both at the same time, but that DHS does not expect the two vaccines to interact badly with each other. Regardless, “we are really encouraging that [unvaccinated people] get involved as soon as they possibly can.”

As the holidays bring people together through the end of the year, Haupt warned against complacency. Vaccines for COVID-19 and for the flu will protect many people from infection, and in the event someone does catch the illness, will keep symptoms mild for most, he said. But the risk remains, especially for medically vulnerable people, whether they are younger, older or have weaker immune systems. 

As people plan travel and gatherings, he urged people to keep in mind “that there’s more than one virus going around — and we are dealing with two very severe ones at this particular point: COVID-19 and the influenza virus.”

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Erik Gunn
Erik Gunn

Senior Reporter Erik Gunn reports and writes on work and the economy, health policy and related subjects, for the Wisconsin Examiner. He spent 24 years as a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine, Isthmus, The Progressive, BNA Inc., and other publications, winning awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, beat coverage, business writing, and commentary. An East Coast native, he previously covered labor for The Milwaukee Journal after reporting for newspapers in upstate New York and northern Illinois. He's a graduate of Beloit College (English Comp.) and the Columbia School of Journalism. Off hours he is the Examiner's resident Springsteen and Jackson Browne fanboy and model railroad nerd.