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Could a 'Twindemic' come for Orange County?

Digital image model of an orthomyxovirus, responsible for the flu
Digital image model of an orthomyxovirus, responsible for the flu

Early numbers show that Florida could see an aggressive flu season. Exacerbating the issue further, COVID-19 infections continue to linger. A rise in both could lead to what experts call a "twindemic" in Orange County and the state.

The Florida Department of Health found that influenza cases from August to September were higher than expected levels, which could be an indication of an above-average flu season, said Dr. Cindy Prins, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Florida.

Another early indicator epidemiologists look toward in forecasting viral transmission is examining southern hemisphere countries that already have gone through the winter season - these act as a sort of crystal ball of what the United States may experience in its winter, Prins said. Earlier this year, Australia suffered through its most severe flu season in five years. That could spell bad news for the U.S. Prins said.

As for COVID, Florida's positivity rate is at 7.1%, according to the FDOH. The number is low compared to rates from earlier this year when the Omicron variant was spreading, but the number is still above the World Health Organization's recommended 5% or lower positivity rate. Orange County saw a slight uptick in positivity this month. The county reported a positivity rate of 7.6% on Oct. 21. Previously, Orange reported a positivity rate of 6% on Oct. 7.

Prins says it's hard to know exactly what COVID will do, but a rise in both viruses could make it possible for a twindemic to occur in the area.

“It’s not very common but that can happen and it makes people fairly ill. The other thing that we worry about is, you can have, let’s say COVID, and be recovering, but then get flu and have that be a sort of a second hit. To your system and especially to your respiratory system,” she said.

Additionally, low vaccine numbers could add fuel to a twindemic fire, Prins said.

According to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, the U.S. is behind on flu vaccines this year with only 21% vaccinated by the end of September. Last year, 26.4% of the population received vaccinations, and in 2020 38% had been vaccinated before October.

CDC data shows, Florida typically ranks toward the bottom of the U.S. when it comes to flu vaccinations. Last year, Florida was second to last among all states and the District of Columbia in the percentage of adults 18 and older who got a flu vaccine, losing out only to Mississippi.

COVID vaccinations aren't much better, especially for those 65 and older, according to the CDC. About 65% of people in that age category have had their first booster dose since completing their initial vaccine series, and only 41.3% had their second booster dose.

"I would say that’s very low for that population since they’re at high risk," Prins said.

Those low numbers are concerning as Floridians prepare for holiday gatherings, which is when scientists previously have seen spikes in virus transmission.

Prins says the best way to stop a twindemic from occurring this winter is getting vaccinated.

“We have vaccines for both of these viruses, and they reduce your chances of being infected," she said. Also, they reduce your chances significantly of getting a serious infection and dying."