Doctors Warn About Challenges Ahead Of A 'Twindemic'

Health experts are worried a surge of flu and COVID-19 cases is ahead.
Posted at 5:39 PM, Sep 23, 2020

We’ve started fall and flu season is creeping in. 

Symptoms for COVID-19 and the flu are almost identical, like body and muscle aches. One major difference, COVID-19 patients often lose smell or taste. 

The same people are at high risk for both. 

"The elderly, those with secondary medical conditions such as cardiovascular disease, high BMI," said Dr. Andrew Pekosz, virologist, professor and vice-chair of the Department of Molecular Microbiology & Immunology, and co-director of the Center of Excellence for Influenza Research and Surveillance at Johns Hopkins University.

Pekosz warns that patients with the flu may think they are infected with COVID-19, and search out tests for the coronavirus but not the flu, or vice versa. There might be an option for one test that combines results.

"Those tests are well, number one, they're a bit more expensive. And number two, they're not widely available yet," he said.

Medical institutions and some companies are trying to pair flu and COVID-19 testing, so they can test one sample at the same time. But there is concern testing access issues will make diagnosing either virus more challenging.

The flu season is wrapping up in the southern hemisphere, and cases were down this year. But doctors say that isn’t a fail-safe for what we can expect in the U.S. 

"That doesn't diminish the need to go and get an influenza vaccination to try to limit influenza disease here in the Northern Hemisphere," Pekosz said.

"There is some potential that we won't see a terrible flu season, perhaps because people are practicing more social distancing, mask wearing," said Dr. Daniel Salmon, director of the Institute for Vaccine Safety at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and professor in the Department of International Health at the Bloomberg School. 

So far, scientists have not seen a large number of co-infections — when someone gets the flu and COVID-19 at the same time. 

"There is some data that we're concerned about, about co-infections, one virus causing an environment within your lungs that makes the other virus easier to infect. But again, much of that is speculation right now," Pekosz said.

For now experts are pushing flu shots, which about half the population gets each year. The American Medical Association has recommended getting a shot before Halloween.