Mayo Clinic Director Warns Of ‘Twindemic’ This Fall Season

Sep 18, 2020

With flu season rapidly approaching, medical professionals are warning of potentially high hospitalizations and deaths if precautions aren’t taken, when combined with the continuing COVID-19 pandemic continues in the United States.

“Here in the U.S. this fall, the question will be, because of the almost exact overlap of symptomatology - Do they have COVID, or do they have one of the four strains of influenza?” said Dr. Gregory Poland, director of the Mayo Clinic’s vaccine research group. 

The Centers for Disease Control reports that between 9 million and 43 million people have contracted the seasonal flu each year since 2010. 

Poland said there are wide variations to how many people die yearly from the flu. 

“We generally have about 12,000 to upwards of 60,000, and in some years 90,000 deaths,” Poland said. 

And going forward, it may be hard to tell whether a person has the flu or COVID-19, since the symptoms are similar.

“There are two symptoms that are common with COVID, but very rare with influenza, and that's loss of smell and taste,” Poland said. “So respiratory symptoms in combination with that would definitely gear me toward thinking COVID, but that doesn't mean that respiratory symptoms alone without loss of smell or taste can't still be COVID.” 

To prevent the ambiguity, Poland suggests everyone get the latest flu vaccine. 

In Jacksonville, the Duval County Medical Society and city have partnered together to create a campaign called FluJaxVax to ensure more people get the vaccine than in previous years, partially due to COVID-19 and preventing an overpopulation of patients at local medical centers.

City and DCMS officials said the goal is to get the adult flu vaccination rate up to 48% in the county, and to help the county’s uninsured and underserved communities.

With the holiday season also approaching alongside the flu season, Poland said people should take advantage of online shopping and getting presents for people early so they can avoid large crowds at stores.

Although a vaccine for COVID-19 could be ready in a few months, Poland said widespread immunity will be slow-moving due to the amount of time it will take to vaccinate large portions of the population. The public’s confidence in the vaccine’s efficacy will also play a major role.

“We will still be wearing masks after getting COVID vaccine until we are at a point where we have high levels of population immunity,” he said.

Poland also said studies of the effectiveness of the COVID-19 vaccine will most likely leave out important groups of people, such as the immunocompromised and pregnant women. 

And while scientists and researchers have learned a lot about the coronavirus since the pandemic began, Poland said there are still questions about the long-term effects of the virus on people’s bodies. 

“This canvas that we call COVID-19 is only 30 some odd weeks old,” Poland said. “So there's a lot of science to learn here. And while we have filled in a lot of pixels on that canvas, nobody has knowledge beyond 30-some weeks, so there is a lot that we'll discover.” 

The best methods for preventing spikes of the flu and COVID-19 are wearing a mask, practicing social distancing, and washing your hands thoroughly.

“We've not been very good about mask wearing, unlike other countries,” Poland said. “You look at some countries, for example, in the southern hemisphere, and they've essentially had, for the first time in modern human history, next to no influenza epidemic, which always happens annually. And that demonstrates the power of wearing a mask and decreasing transmission.” 

The flu season is approaching as northeast Florida saw its deadliest week from COVID-19. Since September 10, 69 people have died of the coronavirus in Duval County alone. 

Sky Lebron can be reached at slebron@wjct.org, 904-358-6319 or on Twitter at @SkylerLebron.