Health experts are expressing concern that this winter's flu season will be worse than others
With the COVID-19 pandemic heading into its third winter and many mitigation measures no longer in place, it may start to feel like the pandemic is over.
While health experts believe COVID-19 isn’t nearly the threat it was at the start of the pandemic, vaccinations for both COVID and the flu are being encouraged as an uptick in both viruses is expected due to more activities moving indoors and the overall lack of mitigation measures.
In the fall of 2020, COVID cases spiked to record-levels, with hospitals pushed to their breaking point by the influx of new cases through late November.
In 2021, things were even worse thanks to the onset of the omicron variant of COVID, with Illinois averaging nearly 33,000 new cases of coronavirus per day during the worse surge of the pandemic.
This year, officials are hoping that new treatment options and vaccinations will help prevent a similar surge. The FDA and CDC have both authorized new COVID vaccine boosters that were specifically formulated to fight back against omicron variants of the disease, and the wide availability of antivirals like Paxlovid have also given doctors hope that any increases in cases could potentially be turned back.
“The thing I worry about isn’t about whether a surge comes with omicron, but if we don’t get a lot of uptake of the updated vaccine, and we continue to see a lot of mutation, and we have a variant emerge that is really different from anything we’ve seen previously,” she said last month. “That’s what happened last December and January.”
Fears of a new variant emerging are also worrying public health experts on another possible spike in cases this winter.
As of Tuesday, the BA.5 omicron subvariant, which has been the dominant strain of COVID-19 in the United States for more than three months, was still responsible for four-in-five cases of the virus, but its grip is beginning to loosen as two other variants gain steam.
According to the latest figures from the CDC, BA.5 is responsible for an estimated 81.3% of COVID cases in the United States, down from 83.2% a week ago.
The BA.5 subvariant rose to prominence at the same time as the BA.4 subvariant, but it’s a descendant of BA.4 that is growing most quickly in the U.S. According to CDC estimates, BA.4.6 is responsible for 12.8% of cases this week, up from just under 12% a week ago.
The BF.7 subvariant, a descendant of BA.5, is responsible for 3.4%, according to CDC estimates.
Like other evolutions of the COVID virus, new spike proteins on both BA.4.6 and BF.7 are helping the virus to better evade both natural immunity conferred from previous iterations of omicron and immunity gained by vaccination, even with new boosters on the market.
“I would be the happiest person alive if we get to February or March and we’ve seen nothing happen or very little happen on the COVID front, we’ve seen a very mild flu season,” Arwady continued. “I would really feel more confident that we are even more past COVID as a society, whereas right now, I love that we’re at a low COVID level – we should be celebrating that, thank you Chicago, but… I am, appropriately I think based on what we’ve learned about COVID, a little concerned about what we may see this fall and winter.”
With fewer mitigation measures in place, the flu is expected to have a significant presence in the Chicago area for the first time since the start of the pandemic.
“I would be shocked if this year we didn’t have the worst flu season that we’ve had while COVID has been with us, and I don’t know for sure what that will look like,” Dr. Allison Arwady, Commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health said on Tuesday during a Facebook Live.
However, Arwady remained positive — for now. “Flu season has not kicked off in any serious way yet here in Chicago, thankfully,” she said.
NBC News reported in August that flu was surging in Australia, marking a shift for the country since the start of the pandemic. As of Aug. 4, the country was reporting its worst flu season in five years.
According to experts, this could potentially point to signs of what’s to come for the U.S.
“The Southern Hemisphere is our best predictor of what the Northern Hemisphere is going to look like for flu season and respiratory season because the seasons are backwards,” Arwady said. “So if I want to know what our winter might look like in terms of flu, the best place to look is the Southern Hemisphere’s winter – our summer – and Australia has had a terrible flu season that they are just, you know, coming out of now. Chile, some other countries in the Southern Hemisphere have had bad flu seasons.”
Additionally, COVID guidelines further easing could bring the return of other respiratory viruses.
“Unless behavior changes and people go back to mask-wearing, we will see a lot more of all of these respiratory viruses,” said Dr. Sharon Welbel, the director of Hospital Epidemiology and Infection Control for Cook County Health. “We’re already seeing some influenza.”
Arwady on Tuesday echoed that concern, noting that without mask-wearing, children specifically could see a return of more ordinary viruses at higher levels than they’ve been.
“I’m concerned that particularly in the kids, where we had lots of masking going on previously, we weren’t seeing a lot of the more routine childhood viruses at such high levels and we are now seeing them now,” Arwady said.
Another point concerning Chicago’s top doctor: the stress the flu virus poses on Chicago’s hospital system.
“I am more concerned about [flu season] than I have been in either of the prior years. Our biggest concern was we know that flu is a huge strain on Chicago every year at baseline,” Arwady said, referring to hospital capacity. “I mean every year we have lots of Chicagoans get admitted to the hospital get admitted to the ICU and even die from influenza.”
The best defense, Arwady said, is getting the flu shot, and sooner rather than later.
“Getting that vaccine right now is what we want folks to do,” Arwady stressed. “It takes a couple of weeks for protection to start kicking in after you get a flu vaccine. So once flu is going strong here, yes, you can get a vaccine then but it’s better to have had that vaccine before we’re seeing serious flu numbers.”
And while COVID cases are down, and Omicron-targeting COVID booster shots are underway, health experts remain concerned that a winter COVID surge or a new variant could change things significantly.
“I am concerned that our regular expected flu surge may also come on top of a COVID surge,” Arwady said. “The hope is that it will not be a crazy new variant.”