Could seasonal flu make a comeback this year? Hospital official touts vaccinations

San Juan Regional Medical Center planning two drive-thru flu shot clinics

Mike Easterling
Farmington Daily Times
  • Flu activity in San Juan County and throughout the region was very mild last year.
  • Some health-care professionals are worried this flu season will be more severe for a variety of reasons.
  • Many industry professionals also are worried about a rise in "coinfections" -- people who get the flu and COVID-19.

FARMINGTON — San Juan County and many other parts of the country experienced a historically mild flu season last year, but a San Juan Regional Medical Center official already is expressing concerns as the beginning of this year's flu season approaches.

Penny Hill, the infection prevention and employee health manager at the hospital, said conditions could be ripe for a more severe flu season this year.

"Although we can't know for certain what the upcoming flu season will bring, the relaxed use of masks and social distancing among COVID-19 vaccinated individuals (as well as some that are not vaccinated) may allow the flu and other respiratory viruses to spread more readily," Hill said in an email in response to a series of questions from The Daily Times. "Flu vaccines are key to mitigating that spread."

Hill said many people forget how deadly the flu virus can be, citing figures from the 2019-2020 flu season, when 405,000 people across the United States were hospitalized with the illness and 22,000 people died.

Trisha Maule, clinical scholar and nursing education manager at San Juan Regional Medical Center, gives instructions to staff members on Oct. 31, 2020, prior to the start of a drive-thru flu shot clinic in Farmington.

She also cited a recent publication from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that stated that the reduced circulation of flu viruses over the past year might affect the severity of this year's flu season. Officials fear that reduced natural exposure to flu viruses after last year's mild season will result in lower levels of population immunity, especially among younger children, and that could result in a "potentially more severe epidemic when influenza virus circulation resumes."

Hill said, to her knowledge, San Juan Regional did not have a single positive flu case last year, which she described as "quite remarkable." She said the infectious disease reports the hospital received from Albuquerque and Denver showed that institutions in those markets saw case numbers only in the single digits, an indication that the spread of the virus was extremely limited across the region.

But Hill said last year's success in keeping the flu virus at bay could result in a sense of complacency this year, with some people deciding it is not necessary to get the flu vaccine.

"That is a concern everyone in the health-care industry has right now," she wrote. "We could be overwhelmed with patients who are hospitalized with flu in addition to those that we are currently caring for with COVID-19. That could quickly deplete precious health-care resources."

Hill said the positive effects of COVID-19 vaccinations are readily apparent in limiting the spread of that virus, and she said now is time to remind everyone of how important it is to get their annual flu vaccine.

Penny Hill

She acknowledged the overall rise in "anti-vax" sentiment in the United States, especially in regard to the COVID-19 vaccination. But she said she hopes most people are more open to the idea of getting the flu vaccine, given the fact that it is more established.

The effectiveness of this year's flu vaccine, which only became available in the past couple of weeks, in warding off the virus remains to be seen. Hill said different flu viruses circulate each season, and scientists rely on data from the preceding season to determine the makeup of the new season's vaccine.

"Two updates were made to last year's flu vaccine composition based on the circulating viruses from last year," she wrote. "We must remember that flu viruses are constantly changing, so it is difficult to determine exactly which viruses will be circulating this season."

Hill also expressed concerns about the renewed risk this year of so-called "coinfections" — cases in which a patient contracts both the flu and COVID-19 virus. Health-care professionals were deeply concerned about the potential for that happening last year, but the number of cases turned out to minimal. Hill is worried that won't be the case this season, especially among certain populations.

"I think the risk is higher this year for those that are not vaccinated for COVID-19 or for flu and because of the decreased use of masks, social distancing and hand washing," she wrote. "An individual could certainly have flu and COVID-19 at the same time."

Hill said patients at San Juan Regional who present with influenza-like illness symptoms during flu season will be tested for both COVID-19 and the flu, adding that testing for both will very important in the coming months.

More:Hospital says no positive flu tests registered yet for 2020-21 season

Another factor that could contribute to a more severe flu season this year is the return of widespread holiday travel. Hill has said she always sees an increase in the number of flu cases at the hospital in the aftermath of Thanksgiving and Christmas, when large number of people have gathered with groups of family members and/or traveled across the country. Those trips and gatherings were greatly reduced last year because of the pandemic, but Hill said she worries that won't be the case during this holiday season.

Flu shots available from numerous medical providers, pharmacies, the health department and others.

"If you think of the mechanisms for transmission for viruses in general, such as close contact with others who may be coughing or sneezing, it makes perfect sense that travel with many other people in an enclosed space for a period of time places others at risk," she wrote.

"This year may actually be less concerning for those traveling by air, as the use of masks is still required by all who travel and more attention has been paid to decontaminating surfaces and cleaning hands. However, gathering with others during the holidays may still place others at risk."

More:San Juan Regional Medical Center provided free flu shots during drive-thru clinic

Hill said making sure everyone is vaccinated is one key to decreasing the risk of transmission during gatherings. She also recommended that anyone who is feeling sick should be limited to visiting with family members and friends virtually.

"I have had a few Zoom gatherings with my extended family over the last two years, and they were a lot of fun," she wrote.

Hill said San Juan Regional is planning two drive-thru flu clinics this fall. Dates for both clinics are pending, she said.

Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610 or measterling@daily-times.com. Support local journalism with a digital subscription.