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Increase in Colds and Flu Could Be Coming as Reopening Continues: Experts

Experts say they are expecting a resurgence as public health guidelines change

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Could reopening mark the return of colds and other illnesses that nearly disappeared or largely decreased during the coronavirus pandemic.

Experts say they are expecting a resurgence as public health guidelines change.

"We have seen many, many fewer other viral infections throughout this whole time," Chicago Department of Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady said Tuesday during a Facebook Live. "We've seen children be much much less likely to get a lot of the typical viral infections that they get. And so I think in general, as people do stop wearing masks, perhaps stop being so careful about hand washing, we probably will see some of the other viruses for which we do not vaccinate, that... don't put people in the hospital and don't significantly cause that, we may see increases of that. And it's certainly something that that we'll be paying attention to."

Dr. Mark Loafman, chair of family and community medicine for Cook County Health, told NBC Chicago "we absolutely do" anticipate an increase in colds, flu and other illnesses going forward.

"I think we'll expect to see more colds," Loafman said. "For the summer colds, you know, people get on average two to three a year, children even more. And we all know that that has not happened over this past year. Many people report not having had a single cold for the past year or so. So, we expect to get back to that two or three a year as we begin to open up. Hopefully, if people are maintaining some precautions, some of the public health measures, it may not be two to three and maybe less."

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported earlier this year that influenza activity was "low" in the U.S. and globally. Health officials said following widespread community mitigation measures to curb COVID-19 cases, positive influenza tests went from over 20% to 2.3%.

Based on health data, the CDC said interventions aimed to halt coronavirus transmissions, in addition to the flu shot, could "substantially reduce influenza" in the 2020 - 2021 season in the Northern Hemisphere.

What should you continue doing to help protect yourself going forward?

According to both Loafman and Arwady, hand washing, avoiding touching your eyes and face and possibly even wearing a mask in some cases.

"[Masks] certainly will help with colds and it's very helpful in the flu season," Loafman said.

"Hand washing is very important as well, and trying to avoid touching," he added. "Touching the eyes with hands that are contaminated- those are really important steps."

But are you more at risk now than you were before the pandemic?

According to Loafman, "there is some reason to think that's true."

"We do build up immunity for colds over time as we get more and more of them, but cold viruses, just like the coronavirus, mutate aggressively and regularly so there are always relatively novel cold coming through that are much more contagious and cause much worse more symptoms," he said. "So part of it will be depend on that... we have not had a lot of colds, we also have not been shown a lot of those viruses and there hasn't been so much of that virus mutation. So, we just don't know yet what's going to happen with the virus burden once it starts to get spread again. So it's kind of an uncharted territory in that sense we haven't had this experience of having a big pandemic and have everybody protected from one another for a while and then open back up again to see what happens."

Still, Loafman noted that while there may be more cold and flu compared to last year, he doesn't expect it to increase more than normal.

"I don't think people shouldn't be particularly alarmed about it," he said. "I don't expect it to be worse than then than usual."

But the return of cold and flu can also be challenging as symptoms can overlap with COVID.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, allergies, colds and coronavirus share certain symptoms like the potential for a cough, shortness of breath or breathing difficulties, fatigue, headaches, a sore throat and congestion.

Symptoms more associated with coronavirus include fever, muscle and body aches, new loss of taste or smell, nausea or vomiting and diarrhea.

Chicago health officials say it can be difficult to tell whether symptoms are related to seasonal allergies, a common cold or the coronavirus, but getting tested is one way to find out. That includes people who have been vaccinated for coronavirus, experts say.

"Anybody with symptoms, that's the most important group of people to test," Dr. Isaac Ghinai, an epidemic intelligence service officer with the Chicago Department of Public Health, said last week. "If you have any symptoms of possible COVID, whether it's even just a mild cough, you know, any of those kinds of mild symptoms, we would still recommend COVID testing."

"If you're developing new symptoms, even if you think it's a cold, you know, get a COVID test," Arwady said Tuesday.

Coronavirus and the common cold share many symptoms.

According to the Mayo Clinic, diarrhea and nausea or vomiting are the only symptoms associated with coronavirus that don't overlap with the common cold.

The hospital also notes that while COVID-19 symptoms generally appear two to 14 days after exposure to SARS-CoV-2, symptoms of a common cold usually appear one to three days after exposure to a cold-causing virus.

For some people, coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms that clear up in a couple weeks. For others, it may cause no symptoms at all. Older adults and people with existing health problems are at higher risk of more severe illness, including pneumonia and death.

Even those who receive the coronavirus vaccine can also still contract the virus and may experience symptoms. Though rare, breakthrough cases have been reported in both Chicago and Illinois.

NBC Chicago/Associated Press
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