COVID-19 and the Winter Flu Season: What’s Next?

By Sheeva Azma

photo of people wearing masks

We always think of the fall and winter months as flu season.  Conditions are ripe for flu to spread in the wintertime, and this year, we also have COVID-19 to worry about.

Wintertime poses good opportunities for both flu and COVID-19 to spread.  Usually, around this time, people are indoors due to cold temps, often have celebrations for winter holidays like Christmas, and there is a lot of travel, which can exacerbate spread of these two diseases.

“We have two or three very hard months ahead of us. I think this is probably going to be the hardest phase of the pandemic.” – @ScottGottliebMD

Experts say we are headed for a surge of COVID-19 cases that could be more severe than the previous months.  As former U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) head Scott Gottlieb, MD, recently told Face the Nation: “We have two or three very hard months ahead of us.  I think this is probably going to be the hardest phase of the pandemic.”  The good news is that increasingly, treatments and vaccines will become available.  The bad news is that, until these therapeutics and vaccines are made widely available, many more COVID-19 cases are sure to ensue, especially as people tire of the COVID-19 precautions they’ve been following since March 2020.

Here are a few things that could impact the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic this winter.

Getting A Flu Shot

According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, flu season begins in October and typically peaks in December, January, and February.

Because both the flu and COVID-19 are spread through infected respiratory droplets, many people are likely to suffer a double whammy of both flu and COVID-19 this year.  Sadly, the symptoms of flu and the symptoms of coronavirus are very similar, and the combined effects of both diseases on the respiratory system can be very severe and even deadly.

Medical experts strongly recommend getting a flu shot this year in order to avoid the combined effects of the flu and COVID-19.  Many pharmacies offer socially-distanced or even drive-thru flu shots this year.  I got my flu shot at CVS in September. I went online to book a Minute Clinic appointment, then showed up at CVS later that day at the scheduled time.  I waited in my car until they called me in for my appointment.  It was all stress-free and over in less than 30 minutes.

It’s important to note that, while getting a flu shot will protect you from the flu and the combined effects of flu + COVID-19, it will not provide any immunity to COVID-19.

COVID-19 Vaccine Availability

The world anxiously awaits a COVID-19 vaccine in the coming months.  While White House science advisor Anthony Fauci believes that clinical trials will yield evidence for the safety and efficacy of their vaccines by the end of the year, such a vaccine might not be available for the general public until April 2021.

Efforts are underway to speed up the COVID-19 vaccine development process in a way that is science-based.  An Emergency Use Authorization or EUA could help speed up vaccine distribution by bypassing formal FDA approval processes, which can take years. 

Here’s one example of how that could work: Moderna’s Phase 3 trial results will mostly likely be available by the end of November, according to the Wall Street Journal.  Former FDA head Scott Gottlieb, MD estimates that, following the two needed doses of the COVID-19 vaccine, the first group of people to be vaccinated won’t have the full immunity needed until February or March.

Regarding the FDA approval process, FDA chief Stephen Hahn, MD, writes on the FDA website, “These decisions will be firmly rooted in science.  We are committed to expediting the development of COVID-19 vaccines, but not at the expense of sound science and decision making.  We will not jeopardize the public’s trust in our science-based, independent review of these or any vaccines.  There’s too much at stake.”

Around the U.S., states like Massachusetts, Hawaii, and South Carolina, are mobilizing and putting together COVID-19 vaccination plans.  The White House has even discussed training members of the military to vaccinate high-risk people such as nursing home residents, following expedited FDA approval of a COVID-19 vaccine.

Availability of COVID-19 Monoclonal Antibody Treatments

U.S. President Donald Trump recently checked out of the hospital in less than a week thanks to a combination of monoclonal antibody treatments developed by biotech company Regeneron.  The treatment is called REGN-COV2 and administered via an infusion.  REGN-COV2 contains antibodies which bind to and neutralize the SARS-CoV-2 virus and establish immunity to COVID-19.

Regeneron, makers of the monoclonal antibody treatment that was used to treat U.S. president Donald Trump, have applied for expedited FDA approval of their successful therapy, REGN-COV2. $REGN #COVID19

Regeneron has applied for an EUA from the FDA to commercialize the REGN-COV2 monoclonal antibody treatment.  The company has stated that they currently have enough doses to treat 50,000 patients, and plans to treat 300,000 patients in the next few months.

REGN-COV2 could help reduce mortality of high-risk COVID-19 patients, but 300,000 doses is not enough for the world’s population — CBS News estimates that 300,00 COVID-19 cases are added worldwide each day.

Combating COVID-19 Fatigue

If we can maintain our regimen of hand washing, masking, and social distancing through the winter, we will have done our part to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 until the right treatments and vaccines can be made available.  If we throw caution to the wind, COVID-19 will continue to circulate unchecked without any FDA-approved treatments or vaccines.

It does not help that many places in the United States have drafted economic reopening plans which have life going back to normal by the end of the year.  It is likely that these communities will have to scale back their reopening efforts if they experience a surge in cases.

If we can maintain our regimen of hand washing, masking, and social distancing through the winter, we will have done our part to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 until the right treatments and vaccines can be made available.

The key to surviving the winter months in a COVID-19 pandemic is to remember the world’s collective efforts over the past several months to curb the spread of the pandemic, and to continue these best practices to prevent the spread of COVID-19 until a vaccine is made available (and perhaps after that).

While it’s difficult to predict exactly how the next few months will go, it’s clear that treatments and vaccines are on the horizon, but the proper regulatory processes must be followed in order to ensure the public health of the United States and the world.  This takes time, and therefore, we must be patient and continue to remain adaptive and resilient in the face of the many challenges our “new normal” brings.

Check out Fancy Comma, LLC’s other COVID-19-related articles here.


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