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Mayo Clinic expert cautions of 'twindemic'

Dr. Gregory Poland, Director of the Mayo Clinic Vaccine Research Group, says a surge of flu cases this winter could lead to a strain on the U.S. healthcare system.

ROCHESTER, Minn. — As temperatures drop and flu season approaches, infectious disease expert Dr. Gregory Poland says the United States might soon see an influenza epidemic alongside the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. 

According to Dr. Poland, the fact that the southern hemisphere had a lighter flu season during its winter months is not necessarily a sign for optimism here in the U.S.

"It really depends on the frequency of mask-wearing," he said. "We know that there are areas in the southern hemisphere where they were not compliant, or couldn't, wear masks—they did have influenza. Other countries that were fairly compliant with that had next to no influenza." 

Along with wearing masks, Dr. Poland stressed the importance of social distancing and frequent hand-washing, since both the flu and COVID-19 can be spread by touching the nose, mouth or eyes.

Dr. Poland also emphasized that it is very difficult to distinguish between the flu and COVID-19, since the symptoms—a fever, a cough and difficulty breathing, for example—are very similar.

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But there are a couple important differences he noted.

"There are two symptoms that are common with COVID-19 that are very rare with influenza, and that's loss of smell and taste," Dr. Poland said. "So respiratory symptoms in combination with that would definitely steer me toward thinking COVID. But that doesn't mean respiratory symptoms alone without loss of smell and taste can't still be COVID."

To avoid confusion and rule out influenza if respiratory symptoms do occur, Dr. Poland recommends getting a flu shot.

Without what he called "non-pharmaceutical" measures such as wearing masks in public, keeping at least 6 feet apart from others and frequently washing or sanitizing hands, Dr. Poland added that this "twindemic" could cause a lot of strain on the U.S. healthcare system. 

He pointed to Los Angeles County in California, which has the most hospital and Emergency Room beds in the country, yet has been overwhelmed in past years when there has been particularly bad flu epidemics.

"Imagine the personal anxiety of individuals not knowing what they have, imagine the surge demand on the system, and imagine not only having what we saw in L.A., Italy, Spain, New York, and other places with fears and concerns about running out of IVs, of ventilators, of beds—imagine adding an influenza epidemic on top of that."