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North Carolina’s flu season may be worse this year, experts warn

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Experts are warning that North Carolina’s flu season may be worse this year based on reports from the Southern Hemisphere.

In Australia, this year’s flu season hit the country harder and earlier. That could be bad news for North Carolina, said Dr. Katie Passaretti, vice president and enterprise chief epidemiologist at Atrium Health. She said what happens in places like Australia, south of the equator, can often predict what happens in places like the U.S., north of the equator, because the seasons are reversed.

“What Australia and others experienced was the worst flu season they’ve seen in the past five years as far as number of cases and increases,” Passaretti told reporters Monday afternoon.

In South Africa, The Atlantic reported "it's been a very typical flu season" by pre-pandemic standards. Kanta Subbarao, the director of the World Health Organization Collaborating Centre for Reference and Research on Influenza at the Doherty Institute, told The Atlantic that after a long hiatus, flu in the Southern Hemisphere "is certainly back."

Passaretti said she anticipates North Carolina’s flu season this year to also be “worse than the past few years” with potentially more cases. She added that the virus may spread more widely this year because fewer people are taking COVID-19 precautions like wearing masks and avoiding crowds. Everyone should get a flu shot by the end of October to be prepared, she said, and it’s fine to pair it with a COVID-19 vaccination or booster.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it’s safe for adults and children to receive a COVID-19 vaccine and a flu vaccine at the same time, or to receive a flu vaccine at the same time as a COVID-19 booster dose.

Data from North Carolina’s Department of Health and Human Services appear to show there were at least 12,421 positive influenza tests and 186 flu deaths in the state during the 2019-2020 flu season. A DHHS spokesperson on Monday did not immediately respond to an email asking the agency to clarify that data and provide 2020-2021 flu numbers.

Flu and COVID-19 are both contagious respiratory illnesses, though they are caused by different viruses. Flu symptoms can include fever, cough, fatigue, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, muscle pain or body aches, and headache.

In 2020, doctors and scientists had hoped to use the Southern Hemisphere’s winter flu season to study how the coronavirus would interact with the flu – but preventative measures like travel restrictions, social distancing and mask wearing “all but stopped flu from spreading in places like South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and parts of South America, Science magazine reported at the time.

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Claire Donnelly is WFAE's health reporter. She previously worked at NPR member station KGOU in Oklahoma and also interned at WBEZ in Chicago and WAMU in Washington, D.C. She holds a master's degree in journalism from Northwestern University and attended college at the University of Virginia, where she majored in Comparative Literture and Spanish. Claire is originally from Richmond, Virginia. In her free time, Claire likes listening to podcasts and trying out new recipes.