Remember Covid? Three years ago we were all hunkered down at home sheltering in place. Many businesses were closed, schools cancelled all in-person classes and social gatherings were taboo (if not illegal). Any time you left the house masks were required. It still amuses me seeing cars drive down the street with the driver alone in the car wearing a mask. I recall running errands to Kroger, Home Depot, Walmart, Lowes and the few other stores that were open and everyone was wearing masks. Retail establishments also required social distancing, asking people to stand at least six feet apart.
Although the mask mandates are gone, Covid has not gone away. It’s just become part of life. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recently advised that the newest vaccine should contain the variant XBB. I must have missed several variants. The last variant I recall was the Omicron BA.2 in early 2022.
One thing I don’t remember during the pandemic is influenza. Wearing masks, standing six feet apart and staying home much of the time was a great way to avoid the flu. Now that people around the world have stopped wearing masks and taking precautions against Covid, the flu is again spreading on its routine path. Americans are advised to get the flu vaccine.
The flu vaccine is a cocktail of the three or more flu strains expected to hit North America in late fall and early winter. It takes about six months to make a flu vaccine in sufficient quantities for a sizable portion of Americans to get vaccinated. To make the flu vaccine public health officials must predict six months in advance the flu strains likely to affect the U.S. In any case the procedure for tracking flu is to monitor Australia the summer before the flu is expected to strike the U.S. the following winter.
American scientists typically look to Australia and some other countries to try to anticipate exactly how bad the flu will get in the US during its fall and winter.
“We closely monitor what happens in countries throughout the Southern Hemisphere this time of year, just to see what’s happening during their flu season. It’s not always a predictor of what’s going to happen here the next season, but yes, we do. We do closely monitor that all summer long,” said Carrie Reed, chief of the Influenza Division of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Epidemiology and Prevention Branch.
According to recent observations:
In the Southern Hemisphere, where it’s now winter, cases began increasing “sharply” in early May, the Australian Department of Health and Aged Care said Friday. It’s an earlier start of the season than some years; case numbers are higher than the five-year average, the agency said, but lower than around this time in 2019 and 2022.
More children in Australia appear to be getting sick than other age groups this year.
Long before Covid, flu season was more than just a passing irritation.
The CDC estimates that the flu caused 9 million to 41 million illnesses, 140,000 to 710,000 hospitalizations and 12,000 to 52,000 deaths every year between 2010 and 2020. It costs the US about $10.4 billion in direct costs for hospitalizations and outpatient visits, the agency said, and that’s only among adults.
Officials caution that they really don’t know what to expect from the flu in Australia. Covid changed everything.
“Flu is so difficult to predict because predicting what any infectious disease will do is predicting human behavior.”
Humans do some predictable activities that spread the flu: Children go to school every fall; families travel to gather for the holidays. But thousands of people could also start wearing masks after seeing someone influential like Taylor Swift tweet a picture of herself wearing one in a city with high flu numbers, and a behavior change like that among enough people could cause flu case numbers to drop.
Back in 2020 to 2021 when people were wearing masks influenza was far less common than in years when masks were not the norm. One thing that Covid has taught people is that it’s OK to wear a mask during contagious disease outbreaks. Mask wearing is common in crowded Asian cities during flu and cold season but has never been common in the United States. Officials wonder to what degree that has changed.