Health officials say COVID-19 precautions have kept flu season at bay |

Health officials say COVID-19 precautions have kept flu season at bay

Kari Dequine Harden
Steamboat Pilot & Today
Health officials encouraged everyone to get flu shots this season due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Photo from Getty Images

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Each flu season is different, but this year is unusually quiet with only 18 hospitalizations in Colorado due to influenza.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is reporting record-low numbers of infection. During the 2019 flu season, from Sept. 29 to Dec. 28, the CDC reported more than 65,000 influenza cases in the United States. During that same period in 2020, the CDC reported just over 1,000 cases.

While flu seasons are inherently unpredictable, there are some hypotheses on why the 2020-21 season is virtually nonexistent, including precautions people are taking to prevent the spread of COVID-19 — mask-wearing, physical distancing, avoiding crowds and washing hands — that also help to prevent the spread of other respiratory diseases.

“These are the principles we’ve always touted to prevent the spread of respiratory diseases this time of year,” Routt County Public Health Director Roberta Smith said about washing hands and covering mouths when coughing or sneezing.

But a new precaution this year — the mask — is getting a lot of the credit.

“(The mask requirement) certainly has kept the flu at bay,” Summit County Public Health Director Amy Wineland said in a town hall meeting Tuesday, Jan. 26. “We have barely had any flu activity here in our community or cold circulating as much as we typically do. So masks are good for lots of things other than just preventing COVID.”

Travel is also a big part of how the different influenza strains spread each year, locally and across the globe.

“It just takes a few out-of-staters to bring in a new strain, transmit that to a few locals and then to others,” UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center infection preventionist Lauren Bryan said about tourism-based communities. “If you break that chain, it protects people.”

It’s also possible people were tested less for influenza and were less likely to go to the hospital, especially early on in the pandemic. However, statistics show positive flu tests in the U.S. dropped by 98% after the pandemic started, while the number of samples submitted dropped by only 61%.

More people getting the flu vaccine this season also could play a factor. The most recent flu vaccination data is not yet available on a state or county level, but Smith said some of the early data on people 65 and older shows a high rate of vaccination.

According to the CDC, more than 192 million doses of the flu vaccine have been distributed since the beginning of the season — the highest number of doses distributed in the U.S. in a single flu season.

There was a bigger than normal push for the flu shot this year because health care professionals said it would help reduce the burden on the health care system and decrease the risk of co-infection of flu and COVID-19.

Being vaccinated against the flu also helps individuals and their doctors rule out influenza, given the similarities in the symptoms with COVID-19.

The efficacy of this year’s flu shot won’t be known for months, and the lack of data will make that harder to determine. But based on what little is known, Bryan said the strains selected for this year’s shot appear to be a good match.

It isn’t too late to get a flu shot and is still a very good idea to do so, health officials said.

Bryan emphasizes the data shows getting a flu shot reduces all causes of mortality.

The flu season is not over, and there could be a late season spike, health officials warned. Other years have seen a quiet start followed by a big rise in cases in March and April, Bryan said.

“It could be that we haven’t got hit yet,” she added.

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