COVID precautions lead to idle flu season

The guidelines set in place to combat COVID-19 over the past year have also contributed to the lack of an influenza season, states reports from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Iowa Department of Public Health (IDPH).

Lynette Brammer, CDC’s Domestic Influenza Surveillance Team Director, said this is the lowest flu season on record.

She added about 0.1 percent of flu tests are coming back positive, compared with 20 to 30 percent at this time in other years. Brammer, who leads the CDC’s domestic influenza surveillance team, said adults are also experiencing a dramatic drop in influenza deaths, with about 450 so far this season, compared with roughly 22,000 last year.

The CDC reported as of March 13, that 358,686 people have been tested for influenza since Sept. 27, 2020. Of those, only 205 have tested positive. Between Oct.1, 2020, and March 13, FluSurv-NET sites in 14 states reported 203 laboratory confirmed influenza hospitalizations for an overall cumulative hospitalization rate of 0.7 per 100,000 population.

Sarah Ekstrand, Iowa Department of Public Health information officer stated the low flu numbers in Iowa are due, in large part, to the measures the public is taking to slow the spread of coronavirus. “Doing these things, keeping distance, using a face mask, washing your hands, staying home when we’re sick, that can keep a variety of viruses from moving among us,” said Ekstrand. “All of those good public health practices help protect from a variety of similar viruses that can move that way, which includes flu. The number of Iowans who have received a flu shot this season is comparable to previous years.”

Information from the IDPH stated from Sept. 27, 2020, to March 13, there was one positive influenza A specimen identified at the State Hygienic Laboratory and one influenza hospitalization in the state was reported.

But, she added, it’s not too late for the flu to surge in the current season if coronavirus restrictions are relaxed. A change in human behavior could make flu cases rise in April and May, when they’re usually decreasing.

Some of the drop may be because people aren’t going in and getting tested for the flu, or they’re staying home fearing their symptoms might be a COVID-19 infection. But researchers think the decline in actual cases is real and steep.

Last flu season, the CDC estimated the virus was responsible for 38 million illnesses, 18 million medical visits, 405,000 hospitalizations, and 22,000 deaths. 

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