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Iowa doctors worry about rising flu cases, COVID transmission heading into holidays

University of Iowa Health Care said last year's flu season was unlike any other with just one positive case. In the last two weeks, there have been more than 150.

IOWA CITY, Iowa — As the holidays approach, University of Iowa Health Care (UIHC) is urging Iowans to pull double-duty on limiting the spread of not only COVID-19 but influenza. 

Monday, UIHC discussed the differences between last year's flu season and this year's. 

"Everyone knows that we had a very mild flu season last year. I believe that here at UIHC, we only had one laboratory-confirmed case of influenza, which is probably the best we've seen in decades," said Dr. Terri Brennan, chief medical officer at UIHC.

Brennan said the mild season resulted from "very strict" COVID-19 mitigation efforts, like frequent hand-washing, social distancing and mask-wearing. 

"We've been concerned that this year might not be the same," Brennan said. 

Two weeks ago, UIHC had just one case of flu. Last week between Tuesday and Saturday, UIHC diagnosed more than 150 people with the flu. Brennan clarified those people were not hospitalized from the flu.

"So we know that now, because we've seen these cases, people are not masking like they were last year," Brennan said. "I also worry that because the flu season was so mild last year that people may not be getting vaccinated like they have in previous years." 

Brennan elaborated that the main concern with the flu spreading is what it can do when mixed with COVID-19 transmission. 

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"So once it starts to spread, [flu] can be a really big deal for our workforce, for our community in general. And then if you add into that the fact that we're still in a surge for COVID, that could really impact our community and our health care resources," she said. 

What kind of impact could that have on the state's health care system exactly? Brennan said the strain hospital workers are under now could get even worse. 

"Our workers have been doing this for almost two years now. And this just keeps coming," Brennan said. "Not to mention the fact that there's also a shortage of workers now, people are retiring earlier, people are changing jobs, people are leaving. And so I think a health care system that's already strapped because of an ongoing pandemic, adding into it another virus like influenza, which can take away workers." 

Another strain is that health care workers are testing a lot of people for COVID, according to Brennan. UIHC staff has a high volume of swab tests to do for both flu and COVID. 

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"So we have to have enough people to be doing the swabbing. And when you're dealing with two different viruses, then you have an increased number of people that are going to require the tests," she said. "And then the last which I can't overstress the importance, is just the impact on the workforce."

The Iowa Department of Public Health reports 22.2% of Iowans have gotten their flu shot as of Nov. 12. But that isn't nearly enough to make any "significant changes," Brennan said. 

"It's good for the people that have had their, their vaccine right to have had it, but it doesn't really have a great effect on community transmission. We'd like to see the numbers be up in the 60, 70, 80 plus percent range," Brennan said. 

WATCH | Medical experts urging Iowans to get flu shot as COVID-19 hospitalizations tick up