Experts fear COVID-19 and flu ‘double whammy’ as cold weather arrives

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Health experts are bracing for a rise in COVID-19 infections over winter and are concerned the surge could coincide with a dangerous wave of influenza.

There is a silver lining, though: high levels of immunity against COVID-19 and the availability of antivirals are expected to offer some protection against severe illness and hospital admissions.

Positive test numbers are increasing in Victoria.Credit: iStock

Burnet Institute epidemiologist Professor Michael Toole said Australia’s “slow burn wave of COVID” may coincide with a significant influenza season.

“If we have a bad flu season we could see even more stress on the health system which is still playing catch-up from when we had 100,000 COVID cases a day,” he said.

Data released by the Victorian Health Department on Friday showed that 5811 new cases of COVID-19 were recorded over the past week, up 1 per cent from the previous week. These numbers are believed to be significantly lower than the actual number of infections in the community due to dwindling testing rates, complacency and asymptomatic cases.

There were 238 patients with COVID-19 in Victorian hospitals, a 46 per cent rise on the previous week, the Health Department said on Friday. There were also 30 COVID-related deaths reported in the past week, more than double the number in the same period last month.

University of Melbourne epidemiologist Professor Tony Blakely said it was too early to see whether Easter gatherings had led to an increase in cases. But he said the “superspreading effect” of holiday events had decreased due to increasing socialisation and immunity.

“We are all out doing things,” he said. “There is not much difference between Easter and the next week in terms of socialisation.”

He hopes the winter wave of COVID-19 cases doesn’t coincide with an influenza wave.

“We don’t want a double whammy,” he said.

Last year, COVID-19 admissions put unprecedented strain on hospitals during the busiest time of the year in winter, when influenza and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) infections were high.

More than 6600 cases of the flu were detected in Australia last month, the highest number for March since 2019.

Royal Australian College of General Practitioners Victoria chair Dr Anita Munoz said people who contracted COVID-19 alongside influenza could become very sick.

She said the winding back of measures such as mandatory masks and social distancing meant that influenza was circulating in the community at pre-pandemic levels.

“I shudder to think of what a person’s experience would be of having COVID and influenza simultaneously, particularly if they have other medical conditions, or if they are very young or old,” she said.

University of South Australia epidemiologist Professor Adrian Esterman said COVID-19 case numbers would rise in winter as more people wound up in hospital with existing respiratory and heart conditions.

“While in hospital, lo and behold, they discover they also have COVID-19,” he said. “That’s why we tend to see a fairly big increase in overall COVID case numbers during winter. It’s not so much because of the massive great big explosion of infections, but because we’re finding more because people are ending up in hospital.”

Dr Sarah Lewis, a GP at Port Melbourne Medical, has recently seen an uptick in patients with COVID-19.

“Several weeks ago we would have next to no bookings for COVID and now we are having two to three patients per day,” she said.

Lewis said a noticeable portion of these patients had gastrointestinal symptoms such as abdominal discomfort, diarrhoea and vomiting.

“They are not testing because they are not getting a sore throat or fever or symptoms they traditionally associated with COVID,” she said.

She said this delay could mean they missed out on antiviral medication, which needs to be taken within five days of symptoms developing.

Each new wave of COVID-19 has led to a smaller proportion of people winding up in intensive care, according to Deakin University epidemiologist Professor Catherine Bennett. She said this was due to high levels of immunity in the community and access to antivirals.

Bennett said Australia was experiencing its longest break between infection peaks since the Omicron variant arrived in late 2021.

“It is heading in a direction where we are getting a bit more breathing space and thankfully seeing something that is not increasing in virulence,” she said.

The Victorian Health Department is advising people to ensure they are up to date with their COVID-19 boosters.

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