Flu season has officially begun in Minnesota, but unlike previous years this flu season is coinciding with a surge in COVID-19 cases.
The Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) on Thursday released its first Weekly Influenza and Respiratory Illness Activity Report of the season, ending for the week of Oct. 17, which says there have been two hospitalizations (one in central Minnesota and one in the metro) and one school outbreak related to influenza to date.
In the entire 2019-2020 influenza season in Minnesota, 4,022 people were hospitalized with lab-confirmed influenza, 197 influenza-associated deaths were reported, three pediatric influenza-related deaths were confirmed, 109 outbreaks of influenza were reported in long-term care facilities and 921 outbreaks of influenza-like illness were reported in schools.
In comparison, COVID-19 has killed 2,301 people and has sent 9,226 people to the hospital (2,485 hospitalized in the ICU) in Minnesota since March.
As it is quite early in the flu season, influenza activity in Minnesota and nationally remains low, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which also tracks influenza.
It's unclear what the influenza season will be like this year, but the CDC and other public health officials believe it's likely the flu and COVID-19 – both upper respiratory illnesses with similar symptoms – will be spreading this fall and winter. Health officials also say that it's possible to get the flu and COVID-19 at the same time, although it's unclear how common this is.
With the flu circulating as COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations are surging, it could overwhelm the health care system. MDH's website says thousands of Minnesotans are hospitalized each year with the flu, but because hospitals are already busy treating people with COVID-19, people need to take extra care to prevent the spread of both illnesses.
The CDC recommends everyone who is 6 months and older get a flu vaccine by the end of October, which can help protect against influenza.
Other steps people can take – such as staying home when you're sick, covering your cough, washing your hands, cleaning frequently touched surfaces, wearing a mask and staying 6 feet from others – will help prevent the spread of the flu and COVID-19. MDH says.
The CDC said there's already evidence that community mitigation measures can help reduce the spread of the flu as evidenced in the southern hemisphere, noting that if people follow these guidelines and get the flu shot it could "substantially reduce" influenza cases this year and inform public health practices for years to come to prevent the spread of the flu.
However, the U.S. might not be as lucky as countries on the other side of the earth. The University of Minnesota's Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy says there may be no flu reprieve this year due to the lack of national response to COVID-19, high rates of noncompliance with physical distancing, and low rates of people getting the flu shot.