The “Go Blue Flu” and the “college plague” are just some of the witty names students at the University of Michigan and across the country have termed the back-to-school sickness that has infiltrated lecture halls with dry coughs and runny noses.
Though students across campus may be experiencing flu-like symptoms, the flu season has yet to come. So what is the source of this seemingly infectious illness?
The Michigan Daily sat with Dr. Joseph Eisenberg, U-M professor and chair of the epidemiology department and public health expert, to get answers as to what these symptoms could possibly be from.
Is the Go Blue Flu really the flu?
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the influenza virus can be contracted year-round, but getting the flu is quite common in the fall and winter months, specifically between December and March. Eisenberg said an early September-October flu season is highly unlikely.
“As the weather gets colder, people are inside more … so transmission is more efficient with respect to aerosol droplets, very much similar to COVID-19, which does better in colder and drier environments,” Eisenberg said. “However, early October is quite early for the flu season. There (are) also a lot of other viruses that cause the common cold.”
Eisenberg said it is more likely that students are infected with other respiratory viruses that are not COVID-19. These can include various respiratory syncytial viruses like rhinoviruses, the other coronaviruses and others.
Why is everyone sick?
Some studies suggest that quarantine and isolation lead to a weakened immune system. Eisenberg said this could be the biggest explanation as to why so many students are experiencing flu-like symptoms. He also explained that the congregation of students across the country in one city, or even one lecture hall, can expose everyone to viruses that may have been localized to one community or general area back home.
“If people have not been exposed to (viruses that cause the common cold) in a long time because they’ve been mostly at home and not socializing, their immune system is not quite primed to fight off viruses,” Eisenberg said.
Even as COVID-19 cases at the University remain low, some U-M students have said they have witnessed their peers coughing in their classrooms and lecture halls. Eisenberg noted that, after experiencing a pandemic, most people are no longer desensitized to coughs and sneezes that would have otherwise gone unnoticed in the past.
“The flu pre-COVID really wasn’t on students’ radar and I think that COVID-19 has increased our awareness of coughing,” Eisenberg said. “It used to be acceptable to come to class or work with a cough. The majority of people probably wouldn’t have given it a second thought. I think that people are sensitized to coughing now in a way they probably weren’t two years ago.”
Dr. Erik Nielsen, professor of molecular, cellular and developmental biology, teaches roughly 150 students in a single lecture hall twice a week. He said that it is not uncommon to see people coughing this time of year.
“It’s not uncommon to see this many people coughing a little bit, but I think we are more aware of it now — (we) have been isolating for a year and have not been hearing these coughs in large groups of people in a long time,” Nielsen said.
LSA senior Shania Ahmed is one of Nielsen’s students. She said that during an exam taken in Nielsen’s class, a student began coughing, which she said caused her and other students in the class to lose some focus.
“During the exam, I think it was pretty distracting just because it’s a quiet room and small noises are pretty distracting to me,” Ahmed said. “With COVID-19 (still around), it’s easy to be anxious about certain sicknesses.”
What does this mean for the upcoming flu season?
Some have speculated that this year’s flu season will also be difficult, as isolation has caused an increase in viral transmission around the world. Eisenberg speculated that this is because only roughly 50% of the population gets their flu shots annually and because of the small flu season the population experienced last year due to isolation.
“That’s the concern with the flu season this season and why we want everyone to get the flu shot more than usual,” Eisenberg said. “The concern is that this flu season will be worse because there was so little flu last year because of the lockdown, social distancing and masking. Now, there is more potential for exposure and the flu season will be worse.”
How to not get the flu
The biggest prevention for the flu is the flu vaccine. According to the CDC, the flu shot is a mixture of four different vaccines for various flu strains that research points to likely be the most common variations during the upcoming flu season. For this reason, the flu vaccine is different each year.
Students and others who meet the criteria for a free flu shot at University Health Service can schedule their appointments through the MyUofMHealth Portal.
If you are feeling sick, Nielsen said get tested for COVID-19 as soon as possible. If you receive a negative test result and feel that you may have the flu or another respiratory virus, be sure to socially distance yourself so as to not get others sick.
“We tell people if they are feeling sick, go get tested right away and that way you feel at least confident going to class,” Nielsen said. “It’s always a challenge for the student (to wait for their results) and I can understand that you don’t want to miss class.”
Daily Staff Reporter Nadir Al-Saidi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.