January 26, 2022

Return of the flu

After a one-year reprieve, expect it to hit hard

Todd R. McAdam/managing editor

The number of flu cases last year was down 99% from the year before, in part because of social distancing, masks and other COVID-19 protocols. However, health experts say this year could be worse than normal.

Last year, the number of influenza cases in Cortland County was down 99% from the year before. Thank all those COVID-19 protocols: masks, social distancing and hand-washing.

It’s not going to be that easy this year, health officials said. In fact, they expect this flu season to be worse than normal and suggest you get your flu shot before the end of October.

Now that most COVID restrictions have been lifted and people are back to work and school, your best bet to avoid getting sick is to get vaccinated, said Lisa Perfetti, Cortland County’s interim public health director.

Between Oct. 3, 2020, and May 15, New York saw 4,846 flu cases, a 96.9% decrease from the same time period the year before, reports the state Department of Health. Cortland County saw a 99% drop, to just seven confirmed cases.

Last years flu cases in Cortland County

January 2020-April 2020: 748
January 2021-April 2021: 7

However, experts are concerned that this year’s flu season will be worse, partly due to the low number last year, said Dr. Paula Brooks, chief medical officer at Guthrie Cortland Medical Center.

“We do a fairly decent job of getting people vaccinated, but every year when the flu goes around, it kind of acts as a vaccination booster. We get exposed to it, our immune systems know what to do and remember how to fight the virus over time,” Brooks said. “Since last year’s numbers were so low, the concern is that there are a lot of people out there that don’t get their flu shot and don’t have that natural booster from exposure last year.”

Although some people may be carriers of the influenza virus, they can be asymptomatic and spread the flu without realizing it, Brooks said. “We estimate that as many as 20% of the population may actually get the flu every year.”

Older adults, young children, pregnant women, nursing home residents and people with asthma, lung disease, heart disease, diabetes or obesity, are more likely to develop flu-related complications, Perfetti said.

The flu is transmitted through droplets, Brooks said. If an infected person coughs, those particles of water stay in the air before landing on you, or on a surface that you’ll later touch. Doctors recommend washing your hands frequently and avoid touching your face, which is the easiest path for the virus to get into your body.

“We recommend that anyone 6 months or older get vaccinated for the flu,” said Tompkins County Public Health Director Frank Kruppa. “Our senior population certainly have more risk factors for severe responses to flu, so we definitely encourage them to get out and get vaccinated.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that approximately 90% of influenza- related deaths and 50% to 70% of influenza-related hospitalizations are patients 65 years old and older.

“While we are still learning about COVID-19 and vaccines, it is recognized that older adults are at the highest risk of serious illness and death,” said Cortland County Area Agency on Aging Director Liz Haskins. “Individuals with questions or concerns about any vaccine should speak with their medical provider.”

The agency will offer three vaccine clinics next week, providing both the flu shot and the COVID-19 vaccine. People can also get their flu shot at a pharmacy or from their medical provider. People 65 and older can ask their provider for the enhanced flu vaccine, which is designed to create a stronger immune response in seniors.

Don’t let the side effects of the flu shot stop you from getting vaccinated, Brooks said. A
sore arm or feeling a little sick afterward is actually a good thing — that means your body is generating an immune response to fight the virus.

“When we get sick, it takes our body a couple of days to figure out what the infectious agent is and develop a response,” Brooks said. “What the shot does, is it makes sure that when we do get infected, we’ve already got an army ready to fight it.”

Because the influenza virus varies each year and the coronavirus is still a relatively new illness, the CDC reports there is very little information about how the flu might affect a person’s risk of getting COVID-19. The CDC believes it is likely both viruses will spread this fall and winter.

“We do know that people can be infected with flu viruses and the virus that causes COVID-19 at the same time,” Perfetti said. “Getting a flu vaccine is the best protection against flu and its potentially serious complications, and getting a COVID-19 vaccine is the best protection against COVID-19.”

Because flu symptoms are similar to COVID symptoms, Kruppa encourages people to get vaccinated against both to avoid unnecessary testing and quarantine. It is safe to get your flu shot and your COVID-19 vaccine at the same time. No separate appointment is needed, Perfetti said.

“We all have a role to play in decreasing the transmission of both of these viruses to ensure the health and safety of all of our community members,” Perfetti said.