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Infectious diseases decline as people stay home to prevent spread of COVID-19

Doctors say the flu vaccine, shown here at St. Anthony Summit Medical Center, will be more important than ever when flu season returns in the fall.
St. Anthony Summit Medical Center

KEYSTONE — As people moved inside to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus, other infectious diseases like influenza and mumps also saw a decline.

Less than a month before Summit County confirmed the state’s first case of COVID-19 on March 5, an outbreak of mumps among Keystone Resort employees reached 26 cases. Summit County public health officials have since confirmed the outbreak has been resolved.

According to a statement from the Summit County Public Health Department, outbreaks are considered resolved after two incubation periods, or the amount of time it takes for a patient to develop symptoms. For mumps, an incubation period is 12-25 days, much longer than the 14-day period associated with COVID-19.

The last case associated with the outbreak was confirmed March 13, according to the statement.

It’s easy to assume that the physical distancing efforts associated with preventing the spread of the coronavirus would be connected to a decrease in prevalence of other infectious diseases. However, the spread of viral diseases is complicated, and it could be related to other public health surveillance efforts, according to the county’s statement.

Nationally, as well as locally, epidemiologists have noticed a drop in normal numbers for influenza. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s weekly influenza surveillance report, the national rate of positive flu tests is less than 1% in both clinical and public health laboratories.

However, CDC officials say the data could be skewed because people are more cautious about going to the emergency department amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Dr. Mark Doucette, emergency department medical director at St. Anthony Summit Medical Center, said the hospital has seen a major decrease in flu cases. While some of the drop in cases could be connected to physical distancing efforts to minimize the spread of COVID-19, Doucette said it’s more likely related to the timing of flu season, which winds down in May.

“Flu is seasonal, and we see most of our influenza cases in the late fall and winter,” he said.

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment tracks flu cases from late September through mid-May, updating their website every week. Positive cases reported in sentinel laboratories have dropped to zero percent in recent weeks, according to the department’s data.

Doucette said most of the patients coming in with flu-like symptoms at this point are considered to be probable COVID-19 cases.

Many experts foresee a second wave of the new coronavirus in the fall, when flu season will start again. Doucette said it’s too early to tell how that will impact health care systems, but added it’s more important than ever this year for people to get their flu shot.

“We urge everyone, especially the elderly and the immunocompromised, to get their flu shot in the fall,” he said. “That’s very important.”

Doucette said people also should continue to physical distance, wash their hands, wear masks and cover their mouths when they cough and sneeze. All of those efforts can help prevent the spread of COVID-19 as well as other infectious diseases.


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