As October draws to a close, the annual flu season is drawing ever closer in northeast Iowa, which, combined with the current prevalence of COVID 19 and several other factors, could make it one of the worst in recent history, according to Dr. Daniel Leisinger of MercyOne in Oelwein.
“This year’s flu season has the potential to be severe,” Leisinger said.
A Readlyn native who completed his medical residency at Trinity Family Practice in Bettendorf, Leisinger has practiced at Oelwein, first at UnityPoint and now at MercyOne, for the past ten years.
The confluence of the normal flu season, which typically runs from late October through March or April, with COVID 19 has put an emphasis on protecting the community against both, although the dangers posed by these different threats may make the best approach to avoid both is unclear. .
For the sake of clarity, Leisinger noted that it’s safe to get the flu shot and the newer COVID 19 booster together in the same doctor’s visit. “Most people can tolerate both,” she said.
In doing so, patients should avoid getting the two injections in the same place, since, in that scenario, “one in each arm is the way we do it,” Leisinger said. That way, if any reaction occurs other than the common “local muscle pain and swelling,” “we’ll know what’s causing the problem,” she explained.
Meanwhile, receiving both vaccines at the same time will not increase the severity of side effects, since a healthy person’s immune system is strong enough to receive both injections at the same time. “He can handle that,” Leisinger said.
Additionally, Leisinger suggested that even those who have previously had COVID 19 get the newer vaccine, in light of the ever-evolving nature of the virus. “In that case, people should still get the booster as long as at least two months have passed after infection,” she said. As for the residual natural defenses of someone who’s already had the virus, “most don’t make the right antibodies from having COVID 19 to protect them enough,” she added, “or those antibodies don’t last long.”
COVID 19’s tendency to quickly adapt into different forms makes the need for everyone to get the latest booster, regardless of previous infection, even more urgent, since “the current booster is for the current strain,” Leisinger stressed. On the plus side, the more the virus changes, the less virulent it seems to become, with recent mutations resulting in far fewer severe cases than before. “Current strains are not that dangerous,” Leisinger noted, “at least not now.”
However, the need to maintain vigilance in this regard stems from the very nature of the threat. “Viruses are always developing new strains to stay ahead of the curve,” Leisinger observed. “Viruses do that. They are always evolving,” whether it is COVID 19 or the flu.
And while current strains of COVID-19 appear weaker than previous ones, the next flu season could be relatively harsh, based on some key indicators, Leisinger said.
In creating the annual flu vaccine, scientists predict whether type A or type B flu viruses, the two that cause seasonal epidemics, are likely to be more prevalent. Once they have made that determination, the vaccine is produced and distributed. Although the development process is largely based on guesswork, the decision is often effective. “Usually they do a pretty good job,” Leisinger said.
Although the vaccine may be robust, existing factors could predict a challenging period ahead. “We haven’t had a bad flu season in the last two years because of all the masking,” Leisinger noted, which could mean a tougher one is coming. Also, flu season has already started in the southern states, a little earlier than usual, possibly foreshadowing a bleak outlook.
One last ominous indicator is the impact that the combination of the flu, COVID 19, and Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV) are currently having across the country, especially on young people. Thanks to this debilitating trifecta, Leisinger said, one report has shown that currently “75% of pediatric beds across the country are already occupied.” With this in mind, she suggested that everyone who can get the current flu shot soon, “within the next two weeks.”
“This year,” Leisinger stressed, “it’s more important than ever to get a flu shot.”
However, the true severity of the upcoming flu season won’t be apparent until “the first of the year,” he noted.
Amid this swirling viral climate, “it never hurts to wear a mask,” Leisinger said, “although at this point doing so is of course optional.” However, “those with compromised immune systems or with illnesses like cancer or serious kidney infections definitely need to continue to wear masks,” she added. If they find themselves in that situation, people should also let those around them know of their increased risk, if possible.
If people have questions about any of the vaccines, “they should follow up with their primary care provider,” Leisinger concluded.