Here comes the ‘twindemic’: Will COVID plus the flu wreak holiday havoc?
It’s flu season—and coronavirus is still hanging around. And as the country continues to battle the delta variant, some medical professionals are warning of a possible “twindemic.”
Dr. Tobias Barker, chief medical officer of Everside Health, told NBC News that the term “twindemic” is being used increasingly as a way to describe the convergence of the influenza virus, the flu and the coronavirus. Barker says his main concern is relaxing COVID precautions such as masking and social distancing, measures that were in full force last year and contributed to a historically low flu season that culminated in the lowest number of flu-related hospitalizations on record since the CDC began recording data on it in 2005.
And, said CDC director Rochelle Walensky in a Thursday briefing about flu vaccination efforts, “Because of so little disease last year, population immunity is likely lower, putting us all at risk of increased disease this year.”
This can be especially problematic for schools, not just among students but also staff. In late October, Livingston, Mont. school nurse Holly Sienkiewicz said, “We’re pretty overwhelmed. We’ve had roughly 15 new cases of COVID in the past week, and at the high school about 19 in the past week, and we just couldn’t keep up.”
She notes that schools have been overwhelmed with COVID cases entering fall flu season and students are already starting to come down with other viruses. “At the beginning of the year, some viral bug went rapidly through our kids. We have never actually seen that many sick kids at the start of a school year. We did a lot of COVID testing. It wasn’t COVID, so it was something else.”
And now that kids aged 5 to 11 are eligible to get the COVID vaccine, many pediatricians’ offices are busier than ever as the demand for those shots coincides with an already busy flu season. Newton Wellesley pediatrician Dr. Alexandra Wallace told Boston 25 News that families had been waiting for months for the office to open its vaccine clinic to the youngest age group, which it did last Friday. “The phone lines have been off the hook to the point where we’re having difficulty getting calls for sick visits coming in, too,” she said. “We’re seeing all the normal viruses—flu, RSV, a lot of hand, foot and mouth. And it’s more complicated with COVID because a lot of kids are requiring testing to go back to school too.”
So, what can district leaders do to get ahead of the problem?
Not surprisingly, many of the same measures that we’ve been taking throughout the pandemic continue to apply as the threat of multiple viruses ramps up this winter, but CDC experts directed these five in particular to K-12 leaders:
- Encourage students, parents and staff to get the flu vaccine. It can be administered at the same time as the COVID vaccine or separately and is an additional protective measure experts at the CDC say no one should do without. This year, the composition of flu vaccines has been updated to be quadrivalent, meaning it protects against four different strains of flu viruses. The CDC recommends the shot for everyone 6 months and older.
- Encourage “respiratory etiquette” among students and staff through education and the provision of supplies, such as clean hand-washing stations, alcohol-based hand sanitizer, tissues and no-touch trash cans. If students sneeze or cough, they should do so into a tissue, discard it into the trash and wash their hands immediately.
- Teach parents, students and staff the signs and symptoms of flu, emergency warning signs and high-risk groups. Anyone exhibiting flu-like symptoms should go home and stay there for at least 24 hours, or until their symptoms, such as fever, have subsided without the aid of medicines.
- Establish relationships and remain in communication with state and local public health officials. Staying in touch and remaining informed about the community flu situation can aid in updating school emergency plans so they are already in place prior to an outbreak occurring, something that wasn’t an option when COVID hit in 2020.
- Continue wearing masks and maintaining distance. Many districts are relaxing or dropping mask mandates among K-12 students, which runs contrary to the advice of health experts who cite the proof that mask-wearing works. Wearing masks and continuing to stay three feet apart are easy measures that can be taken toward protecting students and faculty from a double whammy of COVID and flu this winter.