After an unusually light flu season in 2020-2021 and months without a single flu case at Yale New Haven Hospital, Dr. Scott Roberts said he is preparing for an onslaught of cases this year.
“We are all bracing for a bad winter season. Essentially everyone has had a lost year of building immunity to colds, the flu, RSV. That’s one year additionally removed from potential immunity,” said Roberts, an infectious disease specialist at Yale New Haven Health System. “If you’re asking me to make a prediction, I would say it’s going to be a bad respiratory virus season this winter.”
These viruses include COVID-19 and the flu, but also RSV, which is more common in children, and the common cold.
“We are waiting to see the impact,” Roberts said. “Nobody has seen a [flu] virus in two years, so are these diseases going to be more severe?”
With many children back to in-person daycare and school settings, “we have seen RSV come back in higher frequencies than before and hospitalizations for RSV have returned to normal,” Roberts said.
Roberts said this suggests that all respiratory viruses are likely to be on the rise as the weather gets colder and people spend more time indoors with their friends and family.
While some people point to the 2020-2021 flu season as a reason why masking and social distancing should become the norm in the winter months, Roberts said he does not think that is a realistic approach to infectious disease prevention.
“The degree of what occurred over the past year from a community restriction standpoint … closing venues, masking, distancing … the goal was to not overwhelm the healthcare system…as COVID declines I think the prediction is it will become a seasonal virus like the flu.”
In other words, a COVID season, just like a flu season.
“So, in addition to the COVID vaccine, we are advocating for people to get the flu vaccine,” Roberts said.
Unfortunately, the effectiveness of this year’s vaccine is likely to be on the lower end of the spectrum given that predicating the latest flu strain is more difficult after a next-to-nothing season in the Southern Hemisphere this summer.
“Some years the vaccine is as low as 40 percent effective, but there is some evidence to suggest that the flu vaccine helps cases stay more mild even if you do get sick,” Roberts said.
According to Roberts, the optimal time to get the flu vaccine is at the end of October so that your immunity peaks during the holiday season.