Social distancing, hand washing and mask wearing during the COVID-19 pandemic made last year's influenza season non-existent. But will that be the case this year as students return to school and employees head back into the office?

David Cennimo, associate professor of medicine and pediatrics at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, said the flu season was absent last year because of all the measures that were being taken against COVID-19.

"Basically, you prevent COVID, you prevent flu," he said.

But this year he does not believe many of these measures will happen again. So Cennimo predicted that there will be many more cases of the flu this year. It's too early to tell but never too early to hope, he said.

COVID-19 and the flu are very similar because they are both respiratory-spread viruses, said Cennimo. There seems to be more asymptomatic cases of COVID than influenza. The flu contagiousness is usually over within a week while COVID is around 10 days.

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Both viruses also have similar symptoms: fever, headache, cough, body aches, runny nose, scratchy throat, upper respiratory symptoms, even gastrointestinal symptoms such as nausea, vomiting and diarrhea.

Given the similarities, he said there is no way to diagnose somebody with COVID-19 versus influenza without doing testing.

People must vulnerable for contracting the flu include immunocompromised individuals and the elderly. The CDC estimates that 70 to 90 percent of annual flu deaths are in people over the age of 65.

But Cennimo also said what is different from COVID is that school settings are significant incubators for flu transmission in the community. So that needs to be watched this year, he added.

"We learned a lot about the power of masking, good hand washing and social distancing and we should not forget that," said Cennimo.

That kept people out of all of significant respiratory-viral illnesses. There was not a lot of flu las year so let's try to do it again, he said.

The best defense against COVID-19 and the flu is to get vaccinated for both as soon as possible.

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