After a year of lower influenza (flu) rates in 2020, flu season is back with a force in 2021. In just the past week medical experts have seen cases more than double in Minnesota. 

Minnesota is back on track for a regular flu season, says Jill Foster, MD, a pediatric infectious diseases physician at the University of Minnesota Medical School and M Health Fairview. She talks about the importance of getting the flu vaccine, how the COVID-19 pandemic might impact the flu season, how to keep yourself safe and more.

How are the flu rates looking this year in Minnesota? Is it higher than usual? When do we typically see a peak in cases?

Dr. Foster: This is the time we see flu rates go up. Interestingly, last year we didn’t see much flu because people were wearing masks, social distancing, many schools were distance learning and people were taking other steps to protect themselves from COVID-19. In the last week, we’ve seen cases of the flu double in Minnesota. The cases numbers are getting higher. We are on track for a regular flu season (like we experienced pre-COVID-19). We’re seeing a lot of flu cases in children, which means many of those kids will be spreading influenza to their parents, teachers and other adults. 

If someone hasn’t received a flu vaccine yet, is it too late to get one? Is it okay to get both a COVID-19 and flu vaccine?

Dr. Foster: It’s absolutely not too late to get the flu vaccine. We start seeing flu cases around Thanksgiving, then it starts ramping up around Christmas, January and February are the worst in terms of case numbers. So, really, it’s the perfect time to get a flu vaccine. 

Unfortunately, we are seeing low flu vaccination rates. We believe a lot of people are skipping the flu vaccine this year and instead are opting for the COVID-19 vaccine. It’s great that people are getting vaccinated for COVID-19, but we need to protect ourselves from the flu as well. Our immune systems are strong and capable of receiving both vaccinations. I absolutely recommend people get both shots as soon as possible. 

Does COVID-19 have potential to make the flu season worse this year? Can people contract both the flu and COVID-19 at the same time?

Dr. Foster: You can contract both the flu virus and COVID-19 at the same time. We are already beginning to see it in patients this year. If you get flu and COVID-19 at the same time, it will likely make both the flu and COVID-19 symptoms worse. You may have heard the phrase “twindemic” — a kind of perfect storm where people are contracting COVID-19 and the flu at the same time. It’s very true this year. We’re set up perfectly for a twindemic, which is why it’s so important to get both the flu and COVID-19 vaccines.

What about Respiratory Syncytial Virus, better known as RSV? Are we seeing more cases across the state this year?

Dr. Foster: We have seen RSV cases in children way earlier this year than most, We started seeing cases spike in May, June and July, We usually don’t see that until at least Oct. We know that RSV doesn’t mix well with other viruses, too. The first time you get RSV, is typically the worst. In children, it can be detrimental and even lead to hospitalization. For kids with respiratory issues, or compromised immune systems, RSV can really wreak havoc. Besides getting vaccinated for the flu and COVID-19, your best defense against RSV is hand-washing, social distancing and staying away from others who are ill. 

What are some of the symptoms of flu? How do they differ from COVID-19? Any recommendations for getting better if someone contracts it?

Dr. Foster: The flu and COVID-19 typically present themselves differently. The flu hits you like a truck. You’ll likely have a fever, runny nose, sneezing and a sore throat — more upper respiratory issues that last about 5-7 days, with relief usually coming around day four. Cases vary, but COVID-19 can sneak up on you a little bit. Most severe COVID-19 cases peak about a week or two after you contract it. You get a little bit sick and then it gets worse. Likely symptoms include a fever, dry cough and shortness of breath,  

If you do get the flu, the best advice I can give is to rest up. Listen to your body. Take it easy, drink warm fluids, take pain relievers if necessary, get plenty of sleep and make yourself comfortable. 

Jill Foster, M.D. is a professor of pediatrics in the University of Minnesota Medical School and pediatric infectious diseases physician with M Health Fairview. Her expertise is in prevention and treatment of viral diseases, and in mobilizing public health and healthcare systems in the areas of prevention and screening. 

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