Should COVID-19 be treated like the flu? Or is it time we started treating the flu like COVID-19? It’s a question considered by new research from New Zealand where scientists are suggesting that we’ve got things the wrong way around. Rather than downgrading the severity of COVID to that of other infectious diseases, perhaps it’s time we started taking several other respiratory infections just as seriously.
COVID-19 comes with a suite of symptoms that are harrowingly familiar to everyone who spent 2020 washing their hands and mentally visualizing a 2-meter or 6-foot gap. Some, like a continuous cough and fever, were, for most people, short-lived; while others, like anosmia, brain fog, and chronic fatigue, endured in some people for months and even years.
Long COVID is an example of how the illnesses we contract can change us, and in some cases, those changes can be permanent. COVID isn’t alone here, however. Even the common cold (rhinovirus) can incur complications that alter our ear, sinus, and heart health. According to the World Health Organization, flu not only brings with it the risk of pneumonia, sepsis, and death, but can also make other chronic diseases worse.
New Zealand’s pandemic response was among the most effective in the world, and it wasn’t until 2022 that the impact of the disease became apparent in the country’s mortality records. As COVID continues to be a significant health threat across the globe, researchers are reflecting on how we can build on pandemic preparedness in time for the next infectious disease outbreak.
They are calling to comprehensively mitigate the impact of contagious respiratory infections by adopting the control measures for COVID-19 and applying them to other illnesses.
“As COVID-19 transitions to becoming endemic, some argue that it should be treated more like other infectious diseases. We propose the converse approach of treating other serious respiratory infections such as influenza and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) more like COVID-19,” explain the authors. “This is the argument for exploring an integrated respiratory infection control strategy that builds on the co-benefits and efficiencies of preventing multiple infections, along with a strong emphasis on equity.”
An example of the effectiveness of COVID-19 measures on other respiratory illnesses can be seen in the way that flu dropped off during the pandemic. Strategies like allowing people with respiratory infections to self-isolate (by working from home, for example), and ensuring adequate ventilation and air filtration are available in indoor settings could contribute towards this (preventative measures were shown to "unequivocally" stop the spread of COVID-19 in a separate study).
Furthermore, mask-wearing in high-risk environments such as hospitals, and settings where optimal ventilation isn’t possible – such as public transport – could also help.
By reducing the impacts of not just COVID-19, but other respiratory infections, the authors argue we could both limit disease spread and improve concentration and productivity for people at school and at work. While the paper itself centers around the COVID-19 response in New Zealand, it’s an idea that could have merit elsewhere on the planet, considering influenza's wide reach.
Illness is a natural fact of life, but given that humans are existing in increasingly unnatural – and often crowded – environments, reducing the risk of disease transmission wherever possible could put a pause on potential outbreaks. Rather than getting sick with something that’s “basically just flu,” maybe it’d be better to at least try and avoid getting sick at all.
The study is published in the New Zealand Medical Journal.