By SARAH ATWOOD
Capital News Service
LANSING – As mask requirements and other safety measures decline, most people are less worried about coronavirus, some health officials say.
But that also means we could expect a more severe flu season.
“More masking does help reduce transmission of several different pathogens, including the flu,” said Chelsea Wuth, an associate public information officer at the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. “Less masking this winter compared to last winter could result in people being exposed to more viruses.”
Globally, there’s been indication that this flu season could be worse than previous ones, Wuth said.
“Fewer coronavirus precautions could lead to increased levels of flu and coronavirus,” she said. “Our population level immunity against flu may also be lower than normal because of the relatively low flu season over the last few years.”
Wuth explained that if a population has already contracted one strain of the flu, their immune systems may be stronger so the next strain will not be as bad.
Because fewer people had the flu in 2020-21 and 2021-22, the general population’s immune strength is lower. This should not be a problem if people get their flu vaccine, Wuth said.
However, vaccine hesitancy is a concern among health officials.
Institutional mistrust and failure of doctors to reach marginalized people is a big factor in why people aren’t getting vaccinated, according to the Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan.
The state has developed a comprehensive flu vaccination plan for the coming season, including promoting immunization against the flu and the coronavirus booster at the same time. This includes TV advertisements and billboards across the state.
“It’s really important that people get their COVID booster and flu shot at the same time,” said Norm Hess, the executive director of the Michigan Association for Local Public Health. “We don’t want cases of the flu and COVID going way up simultaneously.
“There’s also the risk of someone’s immune system becoming weakened by COVID and then getting the flu, or vice versa. This situation could be deadly. People need to remember that the flu kills people too,” he said.
The hospital system isn’t prepared for an influx of flu and COVID patients. Resources have gone down since the pandemic, according to Gary Roth, the chief medical officer of the Michigan Health and Hospital Association.
“Pre-COVID hospitalization rates for the flu was 10,000,” Roth said. “We don’t want rates to go up to that point alongside COVID, especially with the lack of staff we have as a consequence of the pandemic.
“If there’s increases in hospitalization rates, our resources will be strained and people won’t get the care they need.” he said.