ST. LOUIS (KTVI) — The COVID-19 surge makes getting your flu shot this year more important than ever, says a Missouri infectious disease specialist. 

Doctors at SSM Health St. Louis University Hospital are worried about the upcoming flu season and its implications for hospitals that are already pushed to the limits of capacity due to the COVID-19 delta variant. 

Last year, flu numbers were down because of masking and people staying home. Loosened mitigation strategies now could lead to an influenza season roaring back this year. 

“I personally have a lot of concern that with the not-as-strong mitigation efforts and with the delta wave that we have, it could shape up to be a pretty bad flu season or hospital utilization season,” said Dr. JoAnn Jose, infectious diseases specialist at the hospital.

“If you have a heart attack or a stroke right now, we want you to go to the hospital and get the care that you need. In order to make that possible and to increase the chances that will be possible even with the delta wave already in play, it’s really important to do what we can to mitigate the flu situation this year,” Jose said.

All St. Louis area hospitals are now preparing for the worst but hoping for the best, Jose said. 

“So, we have a plan for what happens if we start to become overwhelmed, we have plans for staffing if some of our staff are sick or out, we have plans on how to test people when they come in with respiratory symptoms,” Jose said.

Flu season usually runs from October to spring, so experts suggest the best time to get a flu shot is early September. 

Jose said you can get both the flu shot and COVID shot at the same time. 

“We have really good data that shows if you do get the flu despite being vaccinated, your severity of illness is likely to be much less and the duration of the illness is less as well,” Jose said.
Doctors say every year starts and ends at different times with different strains and different levels of severity of the flu. They add that the best protection is a flu shot and continued mitigation efforts such as wearing a mask. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, last year’s flu activity was unusually low in the U.S. as well as globally. From Sept. 28, 2020, to May 22, 2021, 1,675 (0.2%) of 818,939 respiratory tests were positive for the flu in the U.S. That’s compared to the last three seasons before the pandemic when the proportion of positive tests was 26.2% to 30.3%.

“COVID-19 mitigation measures such as wearing face masks, staying home, hand washing, school closures, reduced travel, increased ventilation of indoor spaces, and physical distancing, likely contributed to the decline in 2020-2021 flu incidence, hospitalizations and deaths,” the CDC said. “Influenza vaccination may also contribute to reduced flu illness during the 2020–2021 season.”