Many experts predict COVID-19 (SARS-CoV-2) will evolve into a seasonal virus like Influenza (the flu), with peaks during the winter. While it seems likely that COVID-19 will become seasonal, how certain and when this will happen remains unknown.
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What Seasonal COVID-19 Would Look Like
As of right now, COVID-19 is not seasonal. Covid cases soared during the summer of 2021 compared to typical respiratory viruses that typically peak in the winter. The next six months to a year will tell what living with COVID-19 will look like in the long term. COVID-19 will likely be endemic, meaning always present at some level. Many believe it will exist in society similarly to Influenza.
If COVID-19 is not eradicated, we can expect covid protocols to be more stringent during the winter months. People will need to increase mask use and social distancing measures to reduce the spread of the virus and other respiratory illnesses.
When COVID-19 Will Look Like the Flu
Once COVID-19 evolves to be more like the flu–manageable, predictable, steady, and possibly seasonal–the illness will transition from a pandemic phase into an endemic one. This would mean that COVID-19 will no longer be widespread with rapidly increasing infections, and hospitals will be able to manage the caseload.
COVID-19 will become endemic once most people are vaccinated or have immunity from prior infection resulting in herd immunity (when a large part of the population is immune to a disease, thus reducing the spread). Some estimates say 70 to 90 percent of the global population will need to be vaccinated to achieve herd immunity.
The mortality rate for seasonal flu is 0.006 - 0.09 percent. The current mortality rate for COVID-19 is still much higher than the flu and is constantly changing. A recent study estimates the omicron variant is at least 40 percent more fatal than the seasonal flu. However, its milder symptoms compared to previous strains of COVID-19 have public health officials hopeful the strain will become less severe as it continues to mutate.
Similarities and Differences Between COVID-19 and the Flu
While both are contagious respiratory illnesses, COVID-19 spreads quicker and can cause more severe illness than the flu. The symptoms of COVID-19 often take longer to appear, and infected individuals remain contagious for longer. Below is an outline of the differences and similarities between COVID-19 and the flu according to the CDC.
COVID-19 is more transmissible partly because it generally takes longer for symptoms to appear in infected individuals with SARS-CoV-2 than the flu virus (incubation time). This means many people are unknowingly contagious and continue with normal activity before symptoms appear, thus spreading the virus.
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Incubation Time for COVID-19 and Influenza
|An infected individual usually experiences COVID-19 symptoms 2 to 14 days after infection.||An infected individual usually experiences symptoms 1 to 4 days after infection.|
Individuals can experience varying symptoms and severity of symptoms. According to the CDC, the listed symptoms for COVID-19 and the flu are extremely similar. Contrary to the flu, COVID-19 can result in “long COVID,” a wide range of new and ongoing health problems lasting more than four weeks after initial infection. Below are shared symptoms of the illnesses:
- Fever / having chills
- Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
- Sore throat
- Runny or stuffy nose
- Muscle pain or body aches
- Change in or loss of taste or smell (more frequent with COVID-19)
- Can result in pneumonia
Current COVID-19 Situation
As the omicron wave subsides, most states are loosening or dropping their COVID-19 restrictions. After two long years, many businesses are finally beginning a return to the workplace. After his first State of the Union Address, President Biden announced a national COVID-19 strategy to increase preparedness and access to treatment of the virus, referred to as the “Test to Treat” plan.
The current seven-day average of new cases in the U.S. has sharply declined since the recent omicron surge, with an average of 30,000 new cases a week. Approximately 66 percent of Americans are fully vaccinated, and 29 percent are boosted.
Unfortunately, the U.S. is still losing an average of 1,000 people a day to the virus. Be sure to continue checking on your family and friends’ mental health and be mindful that individuals are impacted differently by the virus.
Omicron Subvariant BA.2
Even though things seem to be returning to normal, it is not time to throw out your mask just yet. A surge in coronavirus infections in Western Europe has experts and health authorities bracing for a rise in cases in the U.S. caused by a subvariant of omicron known as BA.2. A widespread outbreak in Europe has been followed by a similar surge in the U.S. on several occasions over the past two years.
BA.2 is even more contagious than the original strain of omicron and is spreading faster in the Northwest and West part of the U.S. The new strain has accounted for almost a quarter of new cases in the week ending on March 12.
Dr. Fauci, the president’s chief medical advisor, said in a recent interview with PBS that we can expect to see an increase in cases and possibly hospitalization due to the combination of increased transmissibility, the relaxation of COVID-19 mandates and protocols, the waning of immunity, and unvaccinated persons gathering indoors. The CDC has also announced that it is ready to tighten up and increase restrictions if necessary.
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COVID-19 and Influenza Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
We are still amid a pandemic with ever-changing guidelines that can be hard to keep up with. Below we answer a few questions regarding COVID-19 and the flu.
Will I need another COVID-19 booster shot?
Until we have more data, no one can be sure if we will need another booster shot and for who. Some vulnerable populations (severely or moderately immunocompromised individuals) are currently recommended to receive three doses of the COVID-19 vaccine and one booster by the CDC.
The immunity from a booster shot is reported to wane after four weeks. Still, even two doses of the vaccine significantly reduce severe infections and hospitalizations in the general population. New studies suggest that it could be long before the general population needs another booster.
Can I have the flu and COVID-19 at the same time?
Yes, it is possible to have the flu and COVID-19 simultaneously. Because they have shared symptoms, it is vital to get tested to have an accurate diagnosis.
Can I take off my mask indoors?
You are legally allowed to take your mask off indoors in most states. AARP has gathered links to take you to every state’s current masking guidelines. The federal government still requires face coverings on public transportation and commercial flights, including indoor transit sites (airports, subway stations, etc.).
Only time will tell whether or not COVID-19 will be seasonal like the flu; however, experts believe that the virus will continue to mutate and cause milder infections, as we have seen with the omicron variant. COVID-19 will most likely become similar to other respiratory viruses, moving from the pandemic phase to an endemic one once there is adequate herd immunity.
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Erica graduated from Emory University in Atlanta with a BS in environmental science and a minor in English and is on track to graduate with her Master's in Public Health. She is passionate about health equity, women's health, and how the environment impacts public health.