Flu Season and the Delta Variant Are About to Meet — Here's How to Protect Yourself

Epidemiologist Dr. Jennifer Lighter tells PEOPLE she's hoping for another mild flu season this year, but is urging people to get their flu shots to keep everyone healthy

flu shot
A nurse administers a flu shot in California. Photo: Mario Tama/Getty

Last year, fears of a "twindemic" — a bad flu season combined with the COVID-19 pandemic — thankfully didn't come true in the U.S. with most of the country staying home and wearing masks. Though COVID-19 raged through the winter months, the country experienced what the Centers for Disease Control called an "unusually mild" flu season, with minimal cases and deaths.

Now, as the pandemic continues due to low vaccination rates in parts of the country and the highly contagious delta variant, Americans are once again heading into flu season wondering if they will be hit by two viruses at once. While the outlook is mostly positive, Americans still need to prioritize getting vaccinated against influenza and COVID-19, Dr. Jennifer Lighter, an epidemiologist and pediatrician at NYU Langone, tells PEOPLE.

Currently, experts are predicting another mild flu season based on data from Australia, Lighter says.

"We can look to the Southern Hemisphere, because that's where influenza starts," she explains. "The Australian Department of Health says this season is similar to last year's in that there are 99 percent fewer cases than the two seasons prior."

And though Australia has done a much better job of containing COVID-19 than the U.S., the two flu seasons should be similar because Australia has also lifted mask restrictions and other mandates.

"I suspect that will be replicated in the Northern Hemisphere — but it doesn't mean people shouldn't get vaccinated," Lighter says.

The lack of influenza cases actually means it's more important to get a flu shot, she says.

"I'm concerned that when a flu season does finally come, it could be a severe season because we didn't have low levels of circulating flu in the community for the past year or maybe now two years, which does act like a little bit of boost for people's immune system," she says. "And when you get that little bit of boost severe disease is prevented."

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The flu shot "keeps their immune response boosted, so that when a flu season does finally come, they'll have some baseline immunity."

People can even get both their flu shot and their COVID-19 vaccine — if they don't already have it — in the same visit for added convenience.

"There's no minimal interval of timing between them," Lighter says, even for kids who are eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine. "They're totally different mechanisms."

Along with getting both vaccinations, people can take added precautions against flu and colds by following the health tenants everyone learned through the pandemic — wash your hands frequently, avoid large crowds and wear a mask indoors.

"I think masks are a tool in a way that will become more commonly used in the future to prevent transmission of the flu in addition to COVID," Lighter says. "It's an option that we didn't really consider that much in the past in non-healthcare settings, but it may be something that we will consider in crowded indoor settings in the future."

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