“You can certainly get both the flu and Covid-19 at the same time, which could be catastrophic to your immune system,” said Burrowes, a family medicine physician and assistant professor of family medicine at the University of Central Florida.
“I’m definitely more concerned this year than I was a year ago,” he told CNN. “And the reason why is because now we have pretty significant Covid fatigue amongst the American population.”
Heightened safety precautions against Covid-19 last year helped stymie the spread of the flu last year, said Dr. Mark Rosenberg, president of the American College of Emergency Physicians.
With more people out and about — and millions of Americans not vaccinated against the flu nor Covid-19 — “I do believe you’re going to see a rise in flu cases,” Burrowes said.
“I do believe you’re going to see coinfection with flu and coronavirus. And I do believe you’re going to see a higher rate of mortality as a result of that.”
What Covid-19 and the flu together could do
Having both illnesses simultaneously “would increase the risk of longer-term effects of any of those organ systems,” said Dr. Michael Matthay, a professor of medicine and a critical care specialist at the University of California, San Francisco.
“The two together definitely could be more injurious to the lungs and cause more respiratory failure,” Matthay told CNN last year and reiterated this week.
Respiratory failure doesn’t necessarily mean your lungs stop working. It means the lungs can’t get enough oxygen into the blood.
Internal medicine physician Dr. Jorge Rodriguez typically sees about 60 flu patients each flu season. Last season, the Los Angeles doctor saw zero.
But this year, “the odds of a double whammy are definitely going to increase,” Rodriguez told CNN this week. “The fever may be worse. The shortness of breath may be worse. The loss of smell and taste could be worse. And on top of all that, it could last longer.”
Both he and Burrowes said they expect to see more patients with both illnesses in the coming months. Not only are more people ditching last year’s safety precautions, but having one virus can weaken the immune system’s ability to respond to a second virus.
Think about it this way, Rodriguez said: “If you get hit with a hammer, it will hurt. But if you already have a broken leg and get hit with a hammer again, it will hurt more. And it will take longer to heal.”
Increasingly, they include young, previously healthy adults, Rodriguez said.
He recalled a “38-year-old, super healthy” athlete and martial artist who came down with Covid-19. A year later, he still can’t exercise regularly.
“He just does not have the pulmonary reserve to do it anymore,” Rodriguez said. “It’s affected (other aspects of) his health. He’s gained weight. He’s depressed because he’s not the same person that he feels he used to be.”
On the other side of the country, Burrowes has also noticed an increase in younger Covid-19 patients.
“This year, I have seen over 400 patients with Covid,” he said. “And since April, the overwhelming majority of those patients have been under the age of 40. Of those patients, 98% were unvaccinated.”
How a one-two punch could hit health care
Add an influx of flu patients this season — or flu and coronavirus patients — and the situation could get dire, Burrowes said.
Not only could that reduce other people’s access to prompt health care, it can also endanger medical workers — which, in turn, would also impact the public.
“When people say coronavirus is just like the flu, that bothers me,” he said. “I have never lost a physician colleague to the flu. … But I’ve lost four physician colleagues, relatively healthy, that all died from coronavirus.”
Each of those colleagues died before Covid-19 vaccines were available, Burrowes said.
But even now with vaccination and protective equipment, “we’re treating patients and we’re right up against them and we’re in close proximity with them for prolonged periods of time,” he said.
The public needs to understand that if they don’t help mitigate the spread, they may get a harsh reality check if they have a car accident or another emergency and don’t get the urgent care they’re expecting, Rodriguez said.
How to avoid a flu-Covid-19 double whammy
“Getting vaccinated is one of the best ways to avoid the double whammy,” said Rosenberg, the head of emergency physicians’ association.
“If that means going in and getting the flu shot in one arm (and) the Covid shot in the other, that’s perfectly fine,” Fauci said.
While breakthrough infections are possible with both the flu and Covid-19 vaccines — which work differently in the body — “both of those vaccines have that same ability to decrease the severity of your illness,” Burrowes said.
Even though he’s fully vaccinated, Rodriguez plans to wear a mask in public this fall and winter to help minimize the chances of a breakthrough infection — either of coronavirus or the flu, he said.
He doesn’t want to risk reducing his immune system and becoming vulnerable to the other virus.
“I don’t have a problem with taking extra safety precautions,” he said. “My freedom is not affected in the least.”
CNN’s Jacqueline Howard and Maggie Fox contributed to this report.