Not long ago, we were frightened by the prospect of two terrible infections sweeping through communities. Public health authorities warned us that a bad influenza outbreak on top of COVID-19 would be too much for the healthcare system to handle. That’s why the CDC urged Americans to get their flu shots early to prevent the flu this year.
What Happened to the Flu This Year?
So far, 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.
The Southern Hemisphere:
In Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and countries like 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.
The Flu This Year in the US:
Now we are starting to get early lab results from U.S. reporting centers. The same findings are showing up in America.
“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 percent) were positive for influenza out of 41,000 tests.
Fewer than 300 people 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 there is little room for patients with influenza.
Fewer Children Are Infected with Flu:
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 only able to verify 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.
Keep Up the Precautions:
We only wish that face masks, physical distance and hand washing were as effective against COVID-19 as they appear to be against influenza and RSV. Perhaps if people keep following these precautions and get vaccinated against SARS-CoV-2, we will be able to overcome this deadly virus. In the meantime, we can be grateful that the cold and flu season seems to be the calmest in many years.