Winter’s Coming: Preparedness and Policy for the Post-COVID Flu Season

The federal COVID-19 emergency officially ended this May, but as flu season surges, vigilance will prevent a dangerous backslide.

A major tenant of public health is the prevention of infectious disease. As another winter begins to set in, the flu season is on the minds of many, and particularly public health officials. The strategies employed to that end are paramount to beneficial outcomes.

The 2023-2024 Fall and Winter seasons will be the first since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic where the country is no longer considered to be in a federal state of emergency. Despite the new context, the public will forever be in a post-COVID reality that requires a level of care and vigilance to maintain a safe environment. This week on the Conduit Street Podcast, Dr. Laurence Polsky, the Health Officer for Calvert County, spent some time going over what strategies look like to prevent COVID-19 and other flu and flu-like infections this year.

Preparedness in a “Post-COVID” World

May 11, 2023 was the end of the federal state of emergency that was initiated and maintained due to the COVID-19 pandemic. A great deal of progress has been achieved up to that time and even since then with research that has informed the recommendations of today. As highlighted in an illuminating conversation with Dr. Polsky, vaccinations, boosters, and testing are major priorities that will help Marylanders avoid additional consequences from an already looming flu season.

A major highlight from the discussion with Dr. Polsky is that the severity of the flu season, genuinely hinges on the willingness of the public to take precautions. When viruses like RSV, the flu, and COVID-19 are able to spread at high speeds it compounds the number of infected individuals seeking services. This puts a dangerous strain on medical supplies, financial resources, and the staff that are in place to help those in need. When hospitals run out of beds and materials during a surge, it makes dealing with even more routine complications significantly harder. As Dr. Polsky points out, if a hospital runs out of beds and an incoming patient needs to be transported to a facility further away, that additional 30 minute trip can be the difference between life and death for some people.

While the public willingness is vital to prevention, Dr. Polsky reiterated that the government’s ability to communicate with the public about the priorities and dangers is equally as important. Communication from health officials is key but if other stakeholders get involved those efforts can be maximized. For instance, Dr. Polsky discussed the economic impacts that businesses feel when a bunch of employees are getting sick at once. The businesses ability and willingness to reiterate the messaging from local officials has the potential to save them money in the long-run, with less employees experiencing severe symptoms or even symptoms at all.

Vaccines and Testing

With the emergency state repealed, there are still a number of precautions and practices that public health officials want residents to be aware of and getting updated vaccines and boosters is at the top of that list. As the years have gone on the COVID-19 strains have evolved. The methods employed to deal with these new strains has been developed right along with it. The vaccines that are being deployed now are in direct response to the strength the virus has developed over time.

Dr. Polsky pointed out a major strategy in keeping up with COVID-19 as it evolves, which is that public health officials have used data from across the world to forecast and prepare locally. Other parts of the world experience surges as seasons change and that is a major benefit for researchers looking to get ahead of new consequences. For instance, vaccine developers have been able to track the winter surge of countries in the southern hemisphere, while the northern hemisphere is experiencing a different season. By paying attention to the dominant strains in other locations, researchers have been able to model updated vaccines based on the most recent virus mutations that are causing the most harm in real-time.

In-home testing is another measure that can help lower the impact of the virus in common times when a surge is expected. Just this week the White House announced that free in-home test kit distribution is back in effect for any households looking to stock up. With testing kits readily available, residents who are experiencing symptoms can minimize the potential to expose other community members, while also getting the information they need in order to take time off from work and other activities that require accountability. In addition to this program, local health departments, common drug stores, convenience stores, and grocery stores are well supplied.

Continuity of Public Health Policies

One of the major ways that federal, state, and local health departments and officials are able to stay on the same page with policies is by following guidance from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). As the research and strategy lead, the CDC is able to make sure all levels of government have the same information and guidelines to inform the best local practices to ensure safety and continuity. This also helps to minimize the degree to which communities are experiencing competing regulations and with great variance. For instance, the scenario of one jurisdiction requiring masking while the next town over is not would rarely happen with this continuity in guidelines, that is unless a particularly bad outbreak has begun in a certain area. But, ultimately, this continuity helps residents and officials avoid confusion and disparities in policy.

Accessing COVID-19 vaccines is also rolled into almost all health care policies now. Financial coverage for preventative shots, such as the updated vaccines and boosters, is a new normal, and that goes for individuals electing private or public coverage options. Additionally, programs like Bridges, which is a federal-state-local collaboration, are helping to fill the gaps in need for resource scarce communities that might not have the same ease of accessibility as other populations. This effort to connect vulnerable communities to vaccination opportunities is seen as recently as this week with social media posts and awareness campaigns from Prince George’s, Montgomery, and more, encouraging people to take advantage of these resources to save time, effort, and money.

The Verdict: Is Maryland Ready for Flu Season?

With more research and updated vaccines coming online, Maryland is more prepared than ever according to public health advocates. The degree to which these strategies work, will hinge on how readily communities are willing to take precautionary steps. Although the emergency phase of COVID-19 is over, public health officials continue to caution about the damage a lack of vigilance can do. Avoiding a run on resources and a backslide in progress is paramount to making sure the extreme level of turmoil caused by COVID-19 is mostly a thing of the past, with modest precautions in place to ensure that is the case in the future.