Two years of pandemic have us primed to panic at every headline. A new variant, a new complication, a new baffling policy move. Now, headlines have brought an alarmingly exotic new word to stoke our fears: flurona.
On Sunday the Times of Israel published an article with the headline, “‘Flurona’: Israel Records Its First Case of Patient With COVID and Flu at Same Time.” The first wave of follow-up aggregation articles in other outlets was staid, merely repeating the report. But soon enough the combination of anxiety and pandemic exhaustion led headline writers into a strange cutesy fearmongering: The Daily Beast grimly christened flurona “2022’s Hottest New Illness” and the Cut’s headline asked, “What Fresh Hell Is ‘Flurona’?”
The thing is, though, it’s not a fresh hell at all. (And sure enough, most articles about flurona get to that fact a few paragraphs in.) The Atlantic reported on flu-COVID coinfections in November, tracing them back as far as February 2020, among the first cases of COVID in the U.S. In addition to not being particularly fresh, it’s not much of a hell at all, comparatively. Israel’s first flu-COVID case, the story that triggered this latest wave of reporting, was mild even though the patient was unvaccinated and pregnant.
The name “flurona” suggests a new disease, but it’s not at all, just two familiar infections at once. And this is just a thing that viruses do. Laurel Bristow, an infectious disease clinical researcher coordinator at Emory University studying COVID therapeutics and immune response, pointed out that viruses are opportunists, and in the case of flurona they just ”found the same opportunity in one unfortunate person.” She said she’s seen patients with COVID and flu, COVID and strep, RSV and rhinovirus, on and on. “One pathogen won’t take [precedence] over another,” she told me over email, “in the same way you can stub your toe and still bite your tongue.”
Jeremy Samuel Faust, an emergency physician at Brigham & Women’s Hospital, told me over email, “I figure it’s only a matter of time before we start seeing a variety of co-infections, be it flurona, corona-rsv, metapneumo-rona, et cetera.” (“Metapneumorona” does have a certain ring to it, unpleasant as that co-infection would probably be.)
But if flurona seems new, that may be because it isn’t always even worth looking for. Amita Sudhir, associate professor of Emergency Medicine at the University of Virginia, told me over email, “I don’t always test patients who are being discharged [after COVID treatment] for the flu because it often doesn’t change what they would do at home.” Things are different in the case of children, who if they are admitted to the hospital are tested for a long list of respiratory viruses all at once. ”I did have one patient who was simultaneously infected with four,” Sudhir wrote, “but none of them were COVID.”
The good news—and there is good news—is that protecting yourself from “flurona” is very similar to protecting yourself from COVID: masks (good ones), avoiding crowded gatherings, vaccination. COVID isn’t “just another virus” yet, but everything we’ve practiced protecting ourselves does apply more broadly.
I told my husband I was writing about “flurona.” He paused on his way up the stairs. “Is that the new variant in France?” he asked. No, not that (and you don’t really have to worry about that variant, either). “Is it some new pandemic we need to worry about?” No, I said, it’s when you get flu and COVID at the same time. And he shrugged and kept going upstairs.