Double-Trouble: Flu Season and the Coronavirus Pandemic

by Peyton Blumenfeld ‘22

The flu season is about to begin, but Covid-19 continues to show no signs of ending. Many doctors fret that both viruses will infect a host simultaneously and a double epidemic will create a huge burden on the health care system. What does this mean for the health and safety of civilians and will the similarity between the two viruses cause general confusion and panic among the public?

According to Marc Lipsitch, an epidemiologist at Harvard University, who was interviewed for the Scientific American magazine, “the behavioral changes people have already adopted to flatten the curve of COVID-19—such as social distancing, hand washing, and mask-wearing—could lessen the impact of the flu,” in an ideal world. However, if one were to catch both viruses at once, it could lead to the severity of respiratory failure, said Michael Matthay, a professor of medicine at the University of California. 

But, having two viruses does not necessarily mean they are both actively hurting the host. There is a possibility that the two viruses will compete for a host and one will knock the other out of the ring. “RSV [Respiratory Synical Virus] and influenza virus are a good example of that,” explained Sarah Meskill, assistant professor of pediatrics and emergency medicine, who was interviewed for NPR. “When both try to infect the same cell, one will win.” This idea of two viruses fighting it out could reduce symptoms in a person and subdue the spread of the other virus. 

 The risk of two epidemics happening at the same time this year could potentially weaken one’s immune system and infect thousands of people. The overwhelming cases may put a strain on doctors and cause overcrowded hospitals. “The worst-case scenario is both [the coronavirus and the flu] are spreading fast and causing severe disease, complicating diagnoses and presenting a double burden on the health care system,” Lipsitch said. 

Since the two viruses share similar symptoms, it may be difficult to differentiate one from the other. When a person walking down the street sneezes or coughs into their elbow, this does not automatically mean they have the flu or Covid-19 or any illness. False assumptions could lead to widespread panic. Common symptoms for the flu and Covid-19 include a fever, cough, and sore throat. Covid-19 symptoms can be apparent or asymptomatic, meaning one does not show any signs of illness. Alas, there is only one true method of knowing whether or not one has the flu or Covid-19 and that is to get tested.