This year's flu season might be miserable

Fewer flu cases last year means more potential complications this year.

Maija Kappler 3 minute read September 10, 2021
flu season 2021

The upcoming flu season is going to be a difficult one. GETTY

Just what we need, after our Delta-ridden summer: a bad flu season. “The flu is still out there, just waiting for us to lower our guard,” Forbes reported earlier this month, ominously.

While it’s hard to predict with any certainty, experts say this year’s flu could be hard for a number of reasons. The first is the flu itself, which has the potential to infect a ton of people.

Last year, flu numbers were way down, in large part because we weren’t seeing other people and because more people got flu shots than in previous years. That’s a good thing, of course — doctors were worried about a simultaneous “twindemic” of COVID and the flu that could overflow hospitals. But it also means that this year, there’s less flu immunity than there would be after a year with a lot of flu cases.

“Much of the immunity that we have as a population occurs because people in the population had influenza last year,” explains Dr. Mark Roberts, director of the Public Health Dynamics Laboratory at the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health, according to NBC News. “If they get a similar strain circulating, they won’t get influenza the second year.”

The worst-case scenario, he said, would be an increase in flu cases to the tune of three times what a normal year might look like. But this number could be much lower, if the flu strain isn’t a very contagious one, and if people get the flu vaccine. And at this stage, it doesn’t look like there are any worrying new flu strain variants.

Another reason this flu season could be a tough one is that in many parts of the world, people are more social than they were at the same time last year. Between in-person school and work, and the socializing many vaccinated people are enjoying, “we do expect there might be a lot more flu cases compared to last year,” Dr. Denise Francisco told ABC News.

For that reason, the concern about straining hospitals resources is, once again, a big consideration. The fourth wave of COVID-19 is in full swing across the country, particularly in the western provinces. In Alberta, for instance, healthcare workers are already warning of an impending collapse.

“This is much, much worse than I think people understand,” Edmonton emergency physician Dr. Shazma Mithani previously told Postmedia. “We, as health-care workers, are telling you that things are very dire, that ICU beds are running out, that we are stretched very thin in terms of our hospital capacity.”

So once again, it will be a good idea for everyone over six months old to get a flu shot once they’re available. The flu kills an average of 3,500 Canadians every year, while 12,000 are hospitalized.

According to Health Canada, the people at highest risk of complications from the flu are the elderly, young kids, people who live in long-term care, people who are pregnant or plan to get pregnant soon, and people with health conditions including cancer, diabetes, heart disease, kidney disease, lung disease, neurological conditions, obesity or anemia.

Last year, flu season lasted from late August until late February, according to Infection Prevention and Control Canada. Flu shots are usually made available by the provinces in late September or October.