Experts are raising concerns about a possible “twindemic” this winter as influenza and COVID-19 cases rise, harboring worries about the strain it might place on already exhausted health care workers.
Oklahoma ranked No. 1 in the U.S. for flu activity in the Walgreens Flu Index for the week ending Nov. 13. Oklahoma City was ranked the 4th highest market in the index.
Dr. Dale Bratzler, University of Oklahoma’s chief COVID officer, said the state has relatively low flu rates compared to years before the COVID-19 pandemic hit. But there have been more cases so far this season than all of last season, he said.
“I think that’s because we’ve let our guard down on social distancing, wearing masks, hand hygiene and the other things that are known to slow the spread of influenza,” Bratzler said.
There have been 58 total flu hospitalizations in Oklahoma since Sept. 1, according to state data. COVID-19 hospitalizations in Oklahoma currently number 449, according to a three-day average reported Friday.
Bratzler highlighted a recent “massive outbreak” of the flu at the University of Michigan — under investigation by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — as an illustration for the concern about a potential “twindemic.” He said 528 students had tested positive for flu, with 77% who hadn’t gotten flu vaccinations.
Bratzler said ages 6 months old and above are eligible for a flu vaccination unless the person has one of the “rare contra-indications.” It is “quite safe” to receive a flu vaccination at the same time as a COVID vaccination, he said.
“Even with the flu — just like the COVID vaccines — people who get the flu shot sometimes get the flu,” Bratzler said. “We’ve known that forever, but they don’t get as sick and they’re less likely to be in the hospital or to end up on a breathing machine.”
Dr. Jennifer Clark says the first week in December is generally the first week for a “big jump” in Oklahoma flu cases, with peaks in late January to early March.
Clark is an expert on health care delivery sciences and a former hospital administrator for Project ECHO’s COVID-19 sessions, a program of OSU Center for Health Science.
“Given the fact that we did not have a flu season last year, we’re at risk for having the classic twindemic they’ve been talking about,” Clark said. “The impact on hospitalizations and hospital resources is of concern.”
She said hospitals could encounter another “nightmare winter” despite COVID-19 vaccinations if influenza hits hard. Clark said flu and COVID are both highly infectious diseases that require high-level precautions in hospitals.
“We’re exhausted,” Clark said of hospital workers. “Burnout doesn’t quite adequately cover it.”