Doctors speculate on what flu season will look like

Omicron hinders data-gathering process for influenza


With talk of COVID around the clock, winter is still a time for other illness and viruses, including influenza, which has reemerged this year after being nearly non-existent in 2020-2021.

Doctors across the Front Range said hospitals and clinics started seeing the flu pop up in October and November. Flu season generally lasts through mid-April, leaving doctors along the Denver metro area to say they are not quite sure what to expect as flu season moves into full swing.

At Children’s Hospital Colorado, Dr. Suchitra Rao, a pediatric infectious disease specialist, said they started treating young patients with the flu dating back to October. Rao said the number of cases doctors are seeing at various Children’s Hospital clinics in Douglas, Jefferson and Arapahoe counties are on par with what the levels used to be pre-pandemic.

As of Jan. 27, Rao said Children’s Hospital has had 400 confirmed influenza cases, with 100 of them needing hospitalization.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, while states like Texas and New Mexico have “very high” numbers of flu cases, Colorado is still in the “minimal” stage, meaning not many cases are currently being recorded.

Rao said flu cases started dropping again when the omicron variant of COVID-19 sparked up. As cases of omicron increased, for some reason, flu cases again decreased, she said.

When asked what would cause the change, Rao said doctors are looking at a variety of reasons.

“The reasons why are not clear,” Rao said. “Could be people started wearing more masks with more restrictive policies in place. There are some other theories too.”

Rao said one theory that cannot yet be confirmed is that omicron ran “viral interference” to influenza.

“The theory is that one respiratory virus takes over and others go away,” she said.

Dr. Eric Hill, a HealthOne emergency room physician at the Medical Center of Aurora, said the HealthOne network saw cases drop off as omicron came into view. However, Hill said some of that might be because hospitals are stressed and testing for COVID is a priority, which means labs were testing less for the influenza.

“The need of resource to battle omicron skyrocketed, putting a massive drain on the testing labs,” he said. “Unless it was a must-have, the flu tests were not done. COVID really has drained the system.”

Dr. Ben Usatch, an emergency medicine physician and medical director for UCHealth Hospital Highlands Ranch, said he would argue without proof that omicron was just so much more contagious that it spread throughout the region much faster and with more force than influenza can.

Like Children’s Hospital, Hill said that before omicron, adult flu cases were comparative to the days before the COVID pandemic. However, now, doctors are not sure what to expect for the remainder of the flu season, Hill said.

“With the expectation that omicron cases are going to start to drop, whether that means influenza has a chance to grab hold again — we don’t know,” Hill said.

Usatch said after a nonexistent flu season last year, it’s hard to even consider what to expect in the coming months.

To truly protect the community, Usatch said, getting the flu vaccine and COVID vaccine should be a priority.

“Getting these shots not only protects you, but it provides protection to your family and the community,” he said. “A virus is a virus. Some flus are more concerning than others because of the pneumonia factor. The flu season is still young and getting protected is important.”

Rao and Hill said it is not too late to get the flu shot this season, adding that it is better late than never.

Doctors say flu and COVID symptoms are similar. Anyone with symptoms, Rao said, should first be tested for COVID. After that, other diagnosis options can be explored.

Hill said a big difference between COVID and the flu is the high fever. COVID presents with a lower-level fever, while the flu causes much higher temperatures, he said.

While the flu can primarily be treated with fluid and over-the-counter medications, Usatch said anyone struggling to breathe should get to a doctor immediately.

flu season in denver, children's hospital colorado, suchitra rao, eric hill UCHealth, usatch, Highlands ranch hospital


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