Two-and-a-half years of the COVID-19 pandemic are now informing how Australia deals with flu season.
From public hygiene to case number surveillance, Australian health authorities are better placed than ever to monitor and combat the spread of flu.
“COVID has improved our systems,” said Deakin University chair in epidemiology Professor Catherine Bennett.
Professor Bennett also told The New Daily that the public is far more aware of how respiratory disease spreads, and how to lower that risk.
Experts are expecting some habits arising from the pandemic, like wearing masks in crowded spaces and using free sanitiser in public, to help in this year’s flu season.
“I’m hoping there is that legacy,” Professor Bennett said.
Now health authorities around the country are looking to harness Australia’s pandemic response – which has largely been successful – to take on the coming flu season.
At the end of March, the national decision-making body for disease control, the AHPPC, recommended that private and public pathology labs begin targeted testing “of multiple respiratory pathogens simultaneously”.
In other words, it recommended using PCR swabs to test for the flu in addition to COVID-19.
“The prevalence of influenza in the community will inform decisions on the appropriate time frame for this to commence,” the body advised.
Judging by what some states are doing, that time is now.
Some people in New South Wales who get a PCR test are already being given flu and (respiratory syncytial virus) RSV test results in addition to their COVID-19 results.
This simultaneous testing is a recent initiative of some of the private pathology labs that are contracted by NSW Health to process PCR tests.
The state government doesn’t have the power to instruct clinics on what additional diseases to test for, however, simultaneous testing is becoming more and more widespread.
It’s a similar story in Queensland, where state health authorities are spearheading the move to simultaneous testing.
A spokesperson told TND: “Queensland Health is working toward routine combined testing for COVID-19 and other respiratory viruses such as influenza.”
Private pathology clinics in some other states are also believed to be testing for diseases other than COVID-19, but most government health authorities have yet to confirm specifics.
In Victoria, a Department of Health spokesperson told TND that pathology labs hadn’t been instructed to test for anything other than COVID-19.
“In some sensitive settings such as aged care, the department has advised health care providers to perform a COVID rapid antigen test in the case of consistent symptoms and, if that test is negative, to then test for influenza,” the spokesperson added.
“Victorian labs have been informed that when conducting testing for flu and RSV, they must notify the Department of Health and the referring doctor of a positive result.”
Professor Bennett said the practice of testing for both COVID-19 and the flu is not just about monitoring two diseases in one go, but also ensuring people get the right treatment as soon as possible, before any potential complications.
“You can distinguish COVID from an allergy and even from a cold, but COVID and flu overlap quite a lot more in their symptoms,” she said.
Among vulnerable people in particular, early detection for both COVID-19 and the flu will prevent large numbers of additional patients from ending up in hospital amid a chronic staff shortage.
The need to ease the burden on Australia’s healthcare systems is also one key reason that state governments are beginning to roll out free flu shots.
And, since the pandemic, free public vaccination programs are something that Australians are more accustomed to.
A survey by pharmacy chain Amcal found that one in three Australians are now more likely to get any kind of vaccination than they were before the pandemic.
But after two years of on-again, off-again lockdowns with no serious flu transmission, Australians remain under-vaccinated for this particular disease.
Queensland was the first state to roll out free flu shots to everyone from Tuesday, May 24.
By June, everyone in NSW, South Australia and Western Australia will also receive a free flu shot.
Health experts have lauded these initiatives.
The Victorian state government is expected to make a similar announcement later in the week.
A pharmacy in Sydney advertising flu shots. From the start of June, they will be made free for everyone in the state. Photo: Getty
“It’s hard to vaccinate the whole population, but we know how to do that now,” Professor Bennett said.
“It took a while to get the pharmacies involved in the COVID [vaccine] rollout, but a lot of people are very happy getting their flu dose through their pharmacy.”
New research out of Qatar also indicates that flu vaccines could potentially provide added protection against COVID-19.
The study is yet to be peer reviewed, and it looked at healthcare workers who are more likely to be across COVID-safe precautions anyway, but it appears to add weight to similar research from Brazil, Italy, Iran, the Netherlands and the United States.
The only downside to free flu vaccinations is that people in some states could put off getting their flu shot sooner by holding out for a free dose.
“If people can afford it, it’s still probably going to be quicker and easier to get it now,” Professor Bennett said.
“Because there could be queues once it’s free in certain states.”