By Matt Martinez Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service Published Sep 14, 2021 at 6:01 PM Photography: Sue Vliet

Health care workers are preparing for a challenging flu season after seeing an exceptionally low number of cases last year.

They are urging flu shots – and COVID-19 vaccines – ahead of the winter months.

Dr. Mary Beth Graham, an infectious disease specialist with the Medical College of Wisconsin and Froedtert Hospital, said social distancing and masking were linked to the lower flu numbers last year.

Now, she’s concerned about “mask fatigue.”

People are “tired, and they don’t want to wear them anymore, so there’s a strong potential that we’ll see more spread. And I definitely expect to see more influenza than we saw last year,” she said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC, recently approved allowing people to get the COVID-19 and flu vaccines in the same visit.

“The timing works perfectly,” said Greg Stadter, program director for the Milwaukee Health Care Partnership, a co-op of private and public organizations that seeks to improve access to health care for underserved communities. “Let’s not make people go twice.”

With COVID-19 cases also trending up again, Stadter expects coinfection will be a concern in the fall. Graham said that Froedtert will be testing patients for flu and COVID-19 regularly, since symptoms for both diseases are similar. Coinfection can also lead to more severe infection, hospitalization and death.

“There’s a lot of unknown coming into the fall,” Stadter said.

Dr. Emilia Arana, director of pediatric services with Sixteenth Street Community Health Centers, urged people to get their flu shots and COVID-19 vaccines, especially parents with children at home.

Recent spikes in the coronavirus have led to an increase in multisystem inflammatory syndrome cases among children, a condition that causes inflammation in multiple areas of the body at once, she said.

She stressed the importance of getting the shots in the arm.

“Now is more important than ever,” Arana said. “You’re adding another layer of protection.”