This morning, Los Angeles’ CBS affiliate tweeted “#BREAKING: A COVID testing site at the Getty Center has detected LA’s first case of flurona, a combination of influenza and coronavirus.” A combination of influenza and coronavirus?! Yet another variant with yet another name? Scary, right? Nope.
Flurona is not a thing. CBSLA’s tweet suggests the two viruses somehow bred a gruesome new hybrid virus. But in reality, flurona simply means a person has both Covid-19 and the flu, and probably feels awful.
This is not a new phenomenon; combined infections have been recorded throughout the pandemic. A quick scan of the replies to CBS’s tweet shows many are skeptical of dubbing a fairly commonplace, if unpleasant, dual infection into a celebrity-style portmanteau to rival Bennifer. But it is worth examining how this news even broke in the first place, why CBSLA’s messaging is harmful, and how we can better safeguard against Covid-19 and flu infections — whether separate or together.
How common is getting Covid-19 and flu at the same time?
Recent testing data may not be fully accurate, mainly because of a lack of tests, so it is hard to say precisely how frequently dual infections occur. What we do know is that in 2020, flu infections hit record lows because the precautions people took to prevent Covid-19, like masking and social distancing, also hinder the spread of the flu.
During the period between December 2019 and September 2020, dual infection with flu was detected in 0.4 percent of people with confirmed Covid-19 in the United States.
As of October 1, 2020, some 7,266,942 people in the U.S. had contracted Covid-19. If 0.4 percent of those people also had flu at some point during their Covid infection, that would be 29,067 people who had dual infections in the first nine months of 2020. Importantly, this is an estimate, but it’s fair to say “flurona” is neither new nor wholly unexpected.
Should I be worried about contracting Covid-19 and flu at one time?
A dual infection is a known phenomenon, but that doesn’t mean it is danger-free. The best-case scenario is feeling like you have a mean bout of the flu. The worst-case scenario is the same for both viruses: Death.
People who are immunocompromised, older, or who haven’t been vaccinated for Covid-19 and the flu are all at higher risk of poor outcomes from a dual infection.
In November 2020, teacher Lauren Hines wrote about her experience of simultaneously having the flu and Covid-19 for STAT. Hines had gotten a recent flu shot, but Covid-19 vaccines weren’t available at the time. As a fairly young, presumably healthy person (she doesn’t mention any comorbidities), it was still an unpleasant experience.
To avoid dual infection, people should make sure they’re fully vaccinated and boosted for Covid-19, as well as influenza. Other strategies to hinder infection are to wear a robust mask in public, indoor spaces, or while in prolonged close contact with people outside your household.
Why is “flurona” problematic?
The truth is, people are scared. This time last year, we were left reeling when Delta strode onto the scene — so all eligible folks (hopefully) got boosted. Now we’re dealing with the Omicron wave. Vaccines and boosters are still excellent at providing protection from hospitalization and death, but the prevalence of breakthrough infections, however mild, is still unsettling.
In this environment, the last thing anyone wants to hear is there’s another version of SARS-CoV-2 threatening to upend everything. Framing dual Covid-19/influenza infection as something new with its own catchy name plays into those fears.
The tern “flurona” will probably stick. It may be a descriptor some find useful. But just keep in mind what it actually means: A dual infection of two known viruses.