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With COVID-19 plateauing in Utah and flu season approaching, health officials urge vaccinations

Health officials warn of a combined thread from COVID-19 and the flu in the coming months.

Not only are the seasons changing outside with leaves turning colors and snow falling, flu season is also right around the corner. That worries health experts as fewer Utahns are wearing masks than one year ago and COVID-19 cases staying high.

Last flu season set records for all the right reasons. According to the Centers for Disease Control, the number of confirmed flu hospitalizations during the 2020-21 season was the lowest on record. Only 1,700 of over 800,000 flu tests were positive for the virus -- that’s 0.2%.

The CDC says COVID-19 measures like masking, increased hygiene, reduced travel, and many people working from home all likely contributed to the low numbers.

Summit County Deputy Health Director Shelly Worley says this flu season could look much different.

“I do know that we’ll probably see an increase in flu," says Worley. "Last year, the majority of us were wearing masks within our communities, and that is a protective factor. That’s a prevention measure that we’re not seeing as frequently in our community this year, so most likely the exposures will be greater and we will see an uptick in those cases.” 

More people are also back in the office, and travel has increased significantly since COVID-19 vaccines became widely available last spring. The CDC says those factors could also contribute to a rise in flu cases in the coming months.

Worley encourages everyone to get a flu shot in order to protect against the most severe cases. According to the CDC, all flu vaccines available in the United States this year will cover the four most common strains of the virus. Worley says flu shots can also be given at the same time as a COVID-19 vaccine.

COVID-19 is also something health experts are worried about as the winter approaches. In 2020, COVID-19 cases rose dramatically during the holiday season. This year, cases are higher, but vaccines are also widely available.

University of Utah Health Chief Medical Operations Officer Dr. Russell Vinik says that makes this holiday season complicated. He says experts hope the number of people fully vaccinated and those with natural antibodies from past infections will combine to prevent the dramatic increases in cases seen in 2020.

“We certainly saw last year, as the winter started, we saw a significant increase in cases again," he said. "We don’t know if that’s gonna happen this time around, but there are things that people can do. The vast majority of hospitalizations are in patients who are unvaccinated. It’s not too late to get a vaccine. Even if you get one today, you’ll have some degree of protection by Thanksgiving. This is what we've seen in the past, is these holiday gatherings tend to promote disease transmission.”

University of Utah Health Associate ICU Medical Director Dr. Elizabeth Middleton says she frequently talks with people who are hesitant about getting a vaccine. She says a common theme is people believing the vaccine is more dangerous than the disease.

“I wish there was a way to break through and show them that the possible injury caused by COVID is so much worse than what we see with the vaccine," Middleton says. "We commonly get that question when we’re talking with family members. Like, what do you think about the vaccine? Do you think it’s actually safe? My response to them is I have not taken care of one patient who’s had a complication from the vaccine. I’ve taken care of lots and lots of COVID patients and seen terrible things because of that.”

Vaccines for both the flu and COVID-19 are widely available. To find a COVID-19 vaccination location near you, click here. Flu shots can be found at local pharmacies, or by appointment at hospitals and health departments in both Summit and Wasatch counties.