MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. (WBTW) — Myrtle Beach area hospitals are seeing an increase in flu cases while the state also experiences a surge in COVID-19 diagnoses, something health leaders said could be tied to masks.

This time last year, more people were wearing masks and going out less, according to Paul Richardson, the chief medical officer for Conway Medical Center, who said that makes a difference in the data the hospital is seeing.

“I think that’s really why we saw such a low flu season last year, but it’s back with a vengeance now,” Richardson said.

There were 60 confirmed flu cases in South Carolina from 2020 to 2021, according to the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC). So far this year, there have been 4,500 reported cases.

“We’ve seen more influenza cases already this flu season than we saw in the entire flu season last year and we’re maybe halfway — not even that — through this flu season,” Richardson said.

Grand Strand Medical Center has also seen an uptick in flu cases. DHEC also said there’s been an increase in flu-related deaths.

“Really what worries me is what I’m calling the double whammy,” Richardson said. “Patients who may come down with influenza and COVID.”

Richardson recommends hand washing, mask wearing and social distancing.

“If you’re looking at one thing that could best help you, it is being fully vaccinated with the initial vaccinations series and when you’re eligible, that booster,” DHEC director of public health, Brannon Traxler, said.

Because COVID-19 symptoms and flu symptoms are so similar, Richardson said the only real way to know the difference is to get tested.

Traxler also recommended getting tested before and after gathering for holiday celebrations.