The Return of the Common Illness?

By Josie Jack

Methods to prevent COVID-19, such as masks and social distancing, inadvertently brought cold and flu positivity rates down during the 2020–2021 flu season. Now, with COVID-19 restrictions loosening, colds and flus may rise this winter.

This is especially true for schoolchildren and university students, some of whom are not yet eligible for the vaccine and many of whom no longer attend socially-distanced classes.

Senior Clinical Writer for Yale Medicine Kathy Katella wrote in an Aug. 26, 2021 article she suspects the lack of exposure to common illnesses in 2020 has decreased immunity to them.

“We missed a year of building immunity against those illnesses,” Katella wrote. Meanwhile, guidance on COVID-19 prevention measures has been changing, and will likely continue to change as more people are vaccinated.”

However, that does not necessarily mean there are more cases than in years prior to 2020.

“I think that this year there’s a conception, a feeling of a much bigger spike versus other years, but I don’t know for sure that the data plays that out,” said Kathleen Murphy, a pediatric physician’s assistant. “We are also seeing more patients in the office than I think we might typically see with mild colds, viruses (and) upper respiratories because of the overlap of symptoms with COVID.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention list the many overlapping symptoms of the flu and COVID-19, including a cough, fever, sore throat, body aches and fatigue.

Caleb Parkins, a freshman public health major at the University of Maryland, had the above symptoms the first week of school. He isolated, got tested and learned he had neither COVID nor the flu. Less than two months later, he developed another COVID-like illness that wasn’t COVID.

He hypothesizes his new environment contributed to his illnesses.

“I was going out more, and I wasn’t masking around people from other states,” said Parkins. “We’re a big 10 school. That probably was the reason why.”

Alycia Tara, a junior information technology major at George Mason University, had a similar experience. About halfway through her semester, she developed a cold and tested negative for COVID.

Though attending in-person school and going out were risky, she did so feeling protected.

“I feel safer with the vaccine and then I know everyone in my house is vaccinated,” Tara said.

Murphy believes the amount of illnesses she is seeing in her office is normal and will continue in spikes. In pediatrics especially, minor colds and flus are the norm.

“If I could compare the college group to a kindergarten group: there are a lot of kindergarteners (where) it’s their first time in a room with 20 to 25 other children all day long,” Murphy said. “This is (college students’) first time living in a dorm or similar with 40,000 people.”

Both Murphy and the CDC recommend the basics for combatting flus, colds and COVID-19: washing hands, combatting stress, eating well and most importantly, getting vaccinated.

While experts are unable to predict what this year’s flu season may look like, there is hope that it will not be as widespread as it may feel, coming back from a flu season with a 0.15% flu positivity rate, according to the CDC.

Better yet, there are ways society can return to normalcy eventually while also preventing the spread of disease.

“You don’t need to make every runny nose stay in a bubble forever, but if you are significantly ill, staying away from others is going to help decrease the risk of that spread,” said Murphy.

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Josie Jack is a University of Maryland journalism student. She loves writing about the human impact of today’s news. In her free time, Jack enjoys weightlifting, playing with her dog, and listening to music.

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