AMARILLO, Texas (KAMR/KCIT) — As the Delta variant of the coronavirus continues to circulate, flu season is around the corner.
The highly transmissible Delta variant poses more of a threat than the novel coronavirus, but catching the flu as well could lead to more severe illness. That is according to Rodney Young, M.D., the regional chair of family and community medicine at the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center in Amarillo.
Dr. Young said last year, coronavirus precautions limited the number of flu cases, meaning there was little to no naturally acquired immunity. That could impact how this flu season affects those who contract the virus.
“If we get back, and we gather, and we’re in situations where we can spread respiratory viral infections like flu, it potentially could be a very significant flu season,” said Dr. Young.
He said for people who become infected with influenza and the Delta variant at once, that could be a very serious, or even deadly, combination.
“If you had the misfortune of getting a COVID-19 infection with the Delta variant, and you stacked influenza on top of that, it can you can have a really significant systemic illness, a significant inflammatory response, and potentially very severe or even life-threatening consequences.”
He said the situation would be direr if a person with both viruses required hospitalization.
“The fact that there are so many people with COVID that are unvaccinated in the hospitals right now, that leaves very little space available to take care of not just respiratory illnesses like covid and influenza, but any form of illness,” said Dr. Young.
He said vaccinations are the first line of protection, against both COVID and the flu, noting they are safe and effective.
“The COVID vaccinations are the most studied vaccines in the history of mankind. We have an extensive body of information, and they are being scrutinized very closely and they provide an excellent and very protective benefit,” Dr. Young said. “The influenza vaccines, which are adjusted slightly based on changes in strains from year to year, have been given for decades and they also help significantly to dampen the overall burden of flu.”
But as more people push to get back to a pre-pandemic lifestyle, some behaviors could help to spread the viruses.
“This happens every year, pandemic or not, where as the weather starts to cool, and the schools come back in session, we get closer to each other. We spend more time indoors, and that’s a pattern for respiratory viruses to spread,” he said. “So we know that both the coronaviruses and the influenza viruses will spread when we’re closer to each other particularly indoors. So it just makes it really important to be thoughtful of distance and wear masks and to be vaccinated.”
While COVID-19 vaccinations provide good protection, even against the Delta variant, Dr. Young said masking will be important this fall and winter.
Right now, the Amarillo area has less than 50% of its population vaccinated against the coronavirus.
Dr. Young said herd immunity for the Delta variant would be closer to 90% of the population protected.
“If we have a lot of Delta circulating in the community, and vaccine rates that are closer to 50%, that is going to help some, but we just can’t project with confidence exactly how much it’s going to help,” Dr. Young said.
He said hopefully the number of vaccinated people will decrease the ability for the Delta variant to spread person-to-person.
“But on average with the Alpha variant, someone who got infected with that original COVID might infect 2 to maybe 2.5 additional people. With that delta variant, that number is closer to six to eight range,” said Dr. Young, noting it is roughly three to four times as transmissible as the novel coronavirus. “That makes it a very highly infectious and very concerning viral pathogen for us.”
Dr. Young said getting vaccinated against COVID-19 and the flu will be necessary as fall and winter approach.
“The vaccines are far and away the most important things we can do, particularly as we all want, and we’re trying so hard to get back to a more normal existence,” Dr. Young added. “We really need to take advantage of all the protection we can come up with.”