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Influenza cases are historically low

Last Modified: January 15, 2021

Family Medicine

Hand washing

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the country is experiencing record low instances of influenza. According to their site, “in the United States, circulation of the flu virus dropped sharply within 2 weeks of the government declaring a national emergency March 1.” In fact, instances went from a flu test positivity rate of 19% during the timeframe of September 2019 through February 2020, to just 0.3% from March 1 to May 16, 2020. This trend has continued into 2021, with very minimal cases being confirmed in the United States. Joshua Kline, MD, chief medical officer, PPG – Family Medicine, who confirms we are seeing a decline in influenza in our PPG offices and hospital system, explains why he thinks we’re experiencing this welcome shift and what it might mean for future flu seasons. 

What does this trend tell us?  

These lower numbers of flu show the value of all of the preventative things we’re doing as a society right now to prevent the spread of COVID-19. These measures – masking, hand washing and social distancing – have made a huge difference in decreasing transmission of flu, and we’ve seen that in other countries as well. The other factor that’s been really important is that more people have gotten the flu vaccination this year, and that’s made a big difference.

How is transmission different between flu and COVID-19?

We’re still learning, but COVID-19 seems to be transmitted from people who are asymptomatic (not displaying symptoms) much more often than what we see with flu or other viruses that present cold-like symptoms. People are transmitting COVID without knowing they are doing so, which isn’t quite as likely with other viral illnesses.

Why were people more motivated to get the flu shot, but some skeptical of the COVID-19 vaccine?

I can only speculate, but in talking with patients, I believe people are comfortable with the flu vaccine because it’s been around for some time now and people were willing to get the flu vaccine because they thought it would help protect them this fall. It helps to have local health officials recommending the flu shot as well.

With the COVID-19 vaccine, it was politicized to some degree, and that’s created some issues. For some, the speed/market of distribution has been challenging. But I have to say, I’m heartened by the great research done on the COVID vaccine that shows how safe and effective it is. I can say that I’ve had both doses of my vaccines, and it went very well. I strongly encourage patients to get it, if and when they are able.

What does this mean for future flu seasons?

This drop is largely because of preventative measures, and when we think about whether we’ll sustain these precautions, we have to look at two things: the science behind it and our values as a society. Science says if we want to minimize flu, COVID-19 and other respiratory illnesses, we should do exactly what we’re doing, masking, social distancing, staying home when we notice symptoms or are sick, good hand washing.

What we have to decide as a society going forward is what we want to do. What’s our tolerance for risk? Do we go back to how things were before or how they are now? I believe there will be a middle ground that’s better for all of us. I think we’ll continue with good hand washing and be more thoughtful about keeping our distance when we’re showing symptoms or wearing a mask if we aren’t sure.

Do you expect the number of flu cases to bounce back in future flu seasons?

Flu season does last through at least the end of March, so there’s always a possibility we could see more cases yet this year, but we don’t expect to if people keep taking precautions. A lot will depend on how people act in the future. Are they more cautious if they have symptoms? Do they continue social isolation when they notice symptoms? Do they wear a mask in appropriate circumstances? If those go back to how they were before, we’ll see flu come back as it has before. If we have some sort of middle ground, I think flu will come back but likely not to the extent we’d seen in previous years.

It’s quite striking to see just how much of a difference the preventative measures have made as far as transmission of respiratory illness. Going from approximately 65,000 cases last year to roughly 1,000 this year, and seeing that pattern worldwide, proves that the precautions we’re taking now do slow or stop the spread of these illnesses.

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