As winter approaches, so does the flu season, and this year, USF health experts predict it will be worse than previous years due to the removal of COVID-19 precautions and an increase of indoor gatherings.
USF is already seeing between 10-12 new daily cases across campuses, according to Student Health Services (SHS) Director Joseph Puccio, and that data is only from students who are diagnosed at SHS. He said flu cases typically increase during the holiday season as more people gather indoors to celebrate and with the weather getting colder.
Associate professor at USF Health Jill Roberts and professor in epidemiology at the College of Public Health Edwin Michael have seen data trends that predict the flu season will be worse this year compared to previous years, and they encourage students to take the proper precautions to stay safe.
“This year, we’ve really taken away a lot of those precautions, and unfortunately, university campuses are really kind of a perfect storm for spreading respiratory diseases,” said Roberts. “We have a population that is living in close contact with each other, that’s in classes with close contact with each other and who are not actually taking precautions.”
Flu season may impact students’ attendance in classes, according to Roberts. She said she has already received doctors’ notes from students that said they tested positive with the flu.
“I’ve had six students out for flu this week alone. I have doctors’ notes, they’re flu-positive doctor notes. I suspect that we actually do have an outbreak of flu going on on campus right now that the data hasn’t actually picked up on yet,” said Roberts.
COVID-19 restrictions provided more protection against the flu than previous years, and the lack of their enforcement is likely to have an impact in the current flu season, according to Roberts.
“The flu does not spread as easy as coronavirus does, it’s actually easier to prevent,” said Roberts. “If you continue to wear masks, you can prevent it. You wash your hands a lot, you can prevent it.
“The social distancing thing works as well, just keep up to as much as 6 feet away from other individuals. Flu can’t spread outside of that range.”
However, with COVID-19 precautions, not as many people were exposed to the flu and fewer people developed herd immunity for the current season, according to Michael.
“Last year, these young university people were protected by other people, kids who had immunity from the previous season and the older people getting vaccinated,” he said. “But this year, we are missing the [people with herd immunity], so to make that up, I think young people have to go get vaccinated.”
The intensity of COVID-19 also depleted the resources hospitals would typically have for the flu season, such as ventilators, leaving them less prepared, according to Roberts.
“I think we saw that the hospitals are not well equipped to deal with the additional cases that they had,” she said. “In addition to that, those health care providers are overwhelmed. They’ve been working nonstop since COVID-19 came through and it’s gonna be the same people that are dealing with influenza cases,”
The flu typically spreads quicker when the weather gets colder because more people gather inside to celebrate the holiday season, according to Puccio, and cases will continue to rise as more people gather indoors than outdoors.
“The most serious impact [is] on those with weakened immune systems and the elderly who tend to get very ill with the flu causing increased hospitalizations and deaths,” Puccio said.
Roberts said she doesn’t think hospitals are ready for an intense flu season after the blow they took with the pandemic, and encouraged students to get the flu shot.
“Get vaccinated, it’s not too late,” she said. “The vaccine is available, and it’s free at Student Health Services. So all you need to do is run in there and get vaccinated. And if you’re considering, and you should, get vaccinated for COVID, you can actually do them both at the same time.”