Public health officials and experts are closely watching flu and COVID-19 cases this season as the cold-weather months set in.

At the same time, they're encouraging eligible New Yorkers to get their flu shots and COVID-19 boosters to limit the chances of both illnesses overwhelming brittle hospital systems that have bended during the pandemic. 

New York has lifted most of its COVID-related rules for wearing masks indoors. COVID-19 tests are no longer provided free by the federal government. And there's the concern pandemic fatigue is setting in among people who want to return to normal. 

Officials hope this will be a "normal" winter without disruptions for schools or problems for hospitals, but it is also presents a new challenge for public health leaders and people who are vulnerable to respiratory illnesses. 

"Everything is gone, so everyone is definitely worried the flu cases will rise more than usual and that could definitely put strain on the health care system," said Tomoko Udo, a professor at the University at Albany's public health school. 

The challenge will be even bigger this year as health officials face the task of curtailing polio and monkeypox outbreaks in New York. 

"With the monkeypox and polio outbreak in the state right now, I think their attentions are diverted to other urgent issues," Udo said. 

That's where the COVID-19 boosters and flu shots will come into play for people who qualify for them. Sara Ravenhall of the New York Assoication of County Health Officials said the task of flu shot and COVID-19 booster distribution is falling in large part to public health officials. 

"Many of the local health departments are setting up vaccine clinics and making sure that people have access to equitable vaccine distribution," Ravenhall said. "So they're playing a monumental role."

In addition to the local clinics, flu and COVID-19 shots are also available at pharmacies and can be administered at the same time. New York health officials this week are launching their own campaign through public service announcements to highlight the need for COVID-19 and flu shots. 

But having resources will be challenge. 

"Right now local health departments are having a challenging time recruiting public health nurses, environmental sanitarians and other really critical workers that are needed for our ability to respond to upcoming public health emergencies," Ravenhall said.  

Flu cases were on the rise during the first week of October in parts of New York state, acccording to data provided by the Department of Health. A way to avoid adding strain to the hospital system is through vaccination and booster shots. 

"It's really critical that we all do our part as community members to make sure that our families are protected, our friends are protected and health care workers are protected during this time," Ravenhall said.