What happened to the flu this year? Public health authorities warned us that a bad influenza outbreak on top of COVID-19 would be too much for the health care system to handle. That’s why the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urged Americans to get their flu shots early.
So far, though, masks and social distancing in effect against COVID-19 transmission seem to be slowing the spread of flu. This should not be a big surprise.
In countries like Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Argentina and Chile, there was very little flu from May through September. That is winter in the Southern Hemisphere.
There was a dramatic decline in influenza cases in these countries during their cold season. Some public health authorities believe it was because people were worried about COVID-19. Face masks, social distancing and frequent handwashing may have led to far fewer cases of colds and flu.
Now we are starting to get early lab results from U.S. reporting centers. The same findings are showing up in America. According to the CDC, “The percentage of respiratory specimens testing positive for influenza at clinical laboratories is 0.3 percent this week.”
Almost 30,000 people were tested. Only 75 were positive for flu. Last year at this time over 4,500 samples (more than 11%) were positive for influenza out of 41,000 tests.
Fewer than 300 people this year have been hospitalized with influenza in the United States. In a normal year, we would have been way past that number.
That’s a very good thing. So many people have been hospitalized with COVID-19 that there is little room for patients with influenza.
The CDC reports only one influenza-associated pediatric death this year. That is dramatically different from prior flu seasons. Such a good record could change in the coming weeks. But if people continue to be careful, we may follow the example set in the Southern Hemisphere.
During August 2019, Australia had 60,000 influenza cases. Health authorities there were able to verify only around 100 cases this year.
Dr. Jeffrey Kahn is head of infectious diseases at Children’s Health hospitals in Dallas. He told the Wall Street Journal (Dec. 17, 2020) he was astonished with the change in flu cases this year. Between September and November 2019 there were 722 cases of influenza in Dr. Kahn’s health system. During the same time period this year, there were only four.
Dr. Kahn believes that the precautions families are now taking to avoid catching COVID-19 could be preventing other respiratory infections as well. At his hospitals, he has only seen one case of respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) this year between September and November. Last year there were almost 900 cases. RSV can cause pneumonia and difficulty breathing.