Flu season could come early as pandemic restrictions ease, students return to school

After record low cases of the flu worldwide last year, there is a lot of uncertainty about influenza activity this season.

Experts say small changes in behavior can make a huge impact. We have seen that firsthand over the last 18 months of the pandemic.

"Because people were social distancing and masking in public in order to minimize the spread of COVID, it had a dramatic effect on decreasing the spread of the flu and other respiratory viruses," explained Dr. Juan Dumois, pediatric infectious diseases physician at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital.

The seasonal winter surge of influenza cases plummeted to a record low. Yet, when restrictions relaxed and masks started coming off over the summer, respiratory viruses exploded out of season.

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"It allowed a little open window for these viruses to come in and spread like wildfire in our kids," Dumois said.

That is the reason some experts think we could be headed for a difficult flu season.

The CDC says the lack of exposure to the virus could make us more vulnerable, resulting in an early and possibly severe season. Especially if folks are not masking up or socially distancing. However, it is really too early to say for sure.

"I don't think it would be valid at this time to try to predict exactly what's going to happen, because so much depends upon what happens between now and December with regard to human behavior," said Dumois.

Getting a flu shot is the best way to protect yourself. Officials urge everyone to get the vaccine by the end of October before cases generally spike. Frequent hand-washing and wearing a face-covering in public will also help stop the spread.

"This is not the time for you to take a risk with catching the flu and getting sick enough to end up in the hospital when hospitals are already overloaded with COVID patients because you might not get the care that you need," Dumois said.

The influenza virus and COVID-19 will likely be spreading at the same time, and it is possible to become infected with both.