It's that time of year again — influenza season is back, and it's unclear yet just how widespread the virus could be, though doctors are encouraging Ohioans to get ahead of it.
October marks the official start of flu season, and when the state starts tracking the illness and its impact. But central Ohioans don't need to wait to get protected from the virus, said Dr. Mysheika Roberts, commissioner of Columbus Public Health.
It takes a few weeks for the flu shot to protect people, meaning now is the perfect time to get it, she said.
"I would definitely encourage people to get the flu shot before the end of October. There's a lot of people who say 'flu before boo,'" Roberts said, referring to Halloween at the end of the month. "Everyone who wants to avoid getting the flu should get it."
Although now is a good time to get the flu shot, Roberts said it's never too late to get vaccinated for it, as the shot can still help stave off harsher symptoms later in the season.
The flu can cause a cough, sore throat, fatigue headaches and body aches and fever, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It can also spur more serious complications, such as pneumonia and during the 2021 to 2022 season killed an estimated 5,000 Americans.
The severity of the flu season will depend in part on just how many Ohioans get vaccinated this year, said Dr. Mahdee Sobhanie, an infectious disease specialist at Ohio State University's Wexner Medical Center.
While someone who gets the shot may still get sick, Sobhanie said the vaccine can make a bout with the flu less severe and can shorten the length of the disease. It can also translate to less strain on hospitals and health care providers, who will not only be contending with the flu but also the latest strain of COVID-19 and respiratory syncytial virus again this year.
"The flu is a serious thing," Sobhanie said. "Flu can kill people, it can make you very sick and if you get the flu, you could have potential complications afterwards."
The Ohio Department of Health will begin releasing public reports on the state of the flu in mid-October. As of Thursday, flu activity was minimal in Ohio, spokesperson Michaela Sumner told The Dispatch.
To figure out how bad the flu season will be, doctors often look to the southern hemisphere. The southern part of the world experiences its flu season from April through September, according to the CDC.
This year, the southern hemisphere saw an early and quick spike in flu cases, according to the CDC.
It's possible that Ohio and the U.S. as a whole could follow a similar trajectory for this flu season. But Sobhanie and Roberts said that flu season was thrown out of whack by the COVID pandemic and other viruses such as RSV, which have turned projections into more of a guessing game.
"I think it could be bad, but it's hard to really predict right now in terms of what we will see," Sobhanie said.
Although the COVID-19 pandemic is in its waning days, doctors remain worried that the flu, COVID and RSV could still all converge at once. Such a situation, Roberts said, could strain the health care system when it's already at its busiest.
What worries Roberts the most is that it seems many people have gone back to their pre-COVID ways. It seems like people aren't being as careful and aren't staying home when they're sick like they did at the height of the pandemic, Roberts said.
For that reason, Roberts said she expects this flu season to be worse than recent ones.
"I think really as a country we are back to pre-pandemic activity," Roberts said. "More people are coming to work sick, going to social events sick. Unfortunately, I think a lot of people have forgotten, and they get a little sick and keep on going."
This article originally appeared on The Columbus Dispatch: It's flu season in Columbus: When should you get the flu shot?