As flu season approaches during the coronavirus pandemic, health officials are bracing for what could be a difficult stretch.
With children are starting to go back to school, local and national health experts are warning that people need to remain vigilant to prevent a repeat of the COVID-19 surges we saw last spring.
"We are absolutely preparing for the possibility of a second surge," said Dr. Paul Biddinger, the director of emergency preparedness at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
"We need to hunker down and get through this fall and winter, because it's not going to be easy," said Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
In New England, Biddinger says the confluence of cold and flu season with the pandemic has the potential to overwhelm health care systems.
"If we were to be experiencing a surge of COVID patients and a surge of influenza patients," said Biddinger, "that obviously is just going to be a significant challenge, in terms of trying to make sure we have enough care resources available."
But Biddinger said there's an easy way to try to prevent that from happening: "This is perhaps the most important year for influenza vaccination that we've ever had."
He said that, studying countries in the Southern Hemisphere just coming out of winter, they're seeing encouraging news with a dramatic decrease in flu cases.
"I think we think that their lighter flu seasons have to do with the masking, and the hand-washing, and physical distancing, etc.," Biddinger said.
He added that if people can avoid contracting the flu by getting vaccinated, there will be fewer people concerned that their flu-like symptoms may be COVID.
"To minimize the chance that they have symptoms themselves and have to go get tested, and have to receive medical care," Biddinger said, "there are just so many reasons that we want to encourage flu vaccinations."
He said one of the ways they're working on reducing the burden on hospitals is by expanding rapid testing outside of hospitals so that patients would get results just as quickly through their doctors' offices.